Editorial: Who pays the legal fees for judges charged with ethical violations?
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
April 1, 2009.
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller has asked the state to pay her legal fees for defending against ethics charges because, she claims, the fight could be "financially ruinous."
Well, that argument might be more persuasive if she didn’t appear to have plenty of assets — and then some.
Keller has reported to the Texas Ethics Commission income of more than $275,000 (including her $152,500 salary), plus a home in Austin and Dallas business property that together are worth $1 million.
But the Dallas Morning News this week revealed Keller’s interest in seven other properties in Dallas and Tarrant counties that are valued at about $1.9 million. Those apparently weren’t included on the financial disclosure form she’s required to file.
Some of those she owns herself, including two homes worth more than $1 million and a couple of commercial sites valued at $823,000. The News also found that Keller didn’t list properties owned by her law-student son or her family’s businesses.
Keller attorney Chip Babcock said in a telephone interview that she was working with an accountant and another lawyer to correct the financial disclosure forms.
Nevertheless, it’s clear Keller isn’t indigent, and it’s hard to justify giving taxpayers the bill to defend her on charges that she brought dishonor on the office she’s held since 2000.
Still, Babcock raises a legitimate question: If the State Commission on Judicial Conduct can hire its lawyer for $1 to bring Keller before a public hearing, should she then have to pay the hundreds of thousands of dollars that a defense is estimated to cost? Should a judge with means be treated the same as one without?
Keller was charged for declining to let the clerk’s office stay open past 5 p.m. on Sept. 25, 2007, so that lawyers for Death Row inmate Michael Richard could file a last-minute appeal based on a new issue the U.S. Supreme Court had agreed that morning to consider in a Kentucky case.
Keller’s answer to the commission’s complaint argues that she didn’t know the lawyers were delayed by computer problems but that, even so, they could have taken a hand-written motion directly to the duty judge after hours.
Babcock said he’s willing to steeply discount his usual fee or work pro bono on the case. But he can’t do that. The last time he tried, after defending Texas Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht in an ethics case, the Texas Ethics Commission interpreted the discount as a campaign contribution. Though Hecht’s sanction from the judicial conduct commission was overturned, the ethics commission fined him $29,000 for taking a donation in excess of legal limits and for not properly reporting it. (He’s still fighting that.)
It could be time for the Legislature to set specific parameters about legal fees for judges charged with ethics violations.
But we’ve got to hope that Texas judges will conduct themselves in ways that prevent more of these high-profile ethics fights.