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Two Top Texas Judges Evade Ethics Fines For Years

By Ian Millhiser  

"Two Top Texas Judges Evade Ethics Fines For Years"

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Justice Nathan Hecht is the longest serving justice on the Texas Supreme Court, the highest court in that state for civil matters. Judge Sharon Keller is the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which makes her the highest ranking judge in Texas who hears criminal cases. Both judges received major fines years ago — a $100,000 fine for Hecht and a $29,000 fine for Keller — after a state ethics commission determined they violated their ethical duties. Yet both judges avoided paying those fines for years due to Texas’ labyrinthian process for appealing ethical decisions against judges:

Hecht, the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court, was fined by the Texas Ethics Commission for accepting and failing to report an illegal political contribution from a major law firm. The same panel fined Keller for repeatedly failing to disclose more than $2 million in personal holdings on her financial disclosure forms. . . .

Individuals fined by the ethics panel can appeal by suing in state district court. Once that happens, cases are treated as if they are brand new, and attorneys are given time to gather evidence and witness statements to be presented at trial.

Hecht was fined in December 2008 and started his appeal the next month. Keller’s appeal began in June 2010, about three months after she was fined. Both cases have been assigned to a judge, but neither has been set for a trial date.

Judge Keller, for her part, is no stranger to allegations of misconduct. In 2007, Keller allegedly made a misleading statement to an attorney to prevent a death row inmate from receiving a stay of execution from the United States Supreme Court. The Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct initially gave her a “public warning” to Keller for her actions, saying that Keller’s actions “cast[] public discredit on the judiciary or the administration of justice” and “constitute[] willful or persistent conduct that is clearly inconsistent with the proper performance of her duties as a judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals.” This warning was eventually dismissed on appeal.

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