Democrat Keith Hampton is focusing his campaign to lead the state’s top criminal court on winning over Republicans. That strategy, he says, is the key to defeating Sharon Keller, the controversial long-time incumbent, and becoming the first Democrat to win a statewide election since 1994.
“This race really is not a matter of Democrat versus Republican or conservative versus liberal,” Hampton said. “It’s about right and wrong for people.”
Keller, the presiding judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, has in recent years been a lightning rod for criticism and controversy at the court. Keller did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But Todd Olsen, a political consultant who has worked for decades on judicial campaigns, said that while the judge’s public troubles and recent judicial voting trends make her vulnerable, Hampton has a steep hill to climb to make her weakness into his win.
“He has to run a race, and he has not so far shown that he intends to do so,” Olsen said.
The Court of Criminal Appeals is the last judicial stop in Texas for criminal cases, taking the role in criminal law that the Texas Supreme Court has in civil law. The nine judges make life-or-death decisions in death penalty cases, and their rulings set jurisprudence in criminal cases for lower courts. The presiding judge does much more than issue decisions from the bench, though, leading commissions and advisory boards that set criminal justice policy statewide.
“The presiding judge traditionally sets the tone for the court itself and how it conducts its business internally,” said Shannon Edmonds, spokesman for the Texas District and County Attorneys Association.
In recent years, the tone for Keller, who in 1994 became the first woman to serve on the court, has been a controversial one.
She drew national attention to the court in 2007 when, on the day of a death row inmate’s execution, she refused to allow his lawyers to file a last-minute appeal, saying the court had closed at 5 p.m.
Then, in 2010, the Texas Ethics Commission fined Keller $100,000 for failing to disclose sources of income on her personal financial statements from 2004 to 2008. It was the largest such fine in the ethics commission’s history.
But Keller has received wide praise for her work as chairwoman of the Task Force on Indigent Defense, which has brought a sea change in how the poor in Texas are represented in court.
And that role is a critical one for the accused who cannot afford to hire lawyers, said Kathryn Kase, executive director of the Texas Defender Service, which represents death row inmates.
“You can’t just think about this job as purely an appellate job,” Kase said. “There is a policy role that accompanies it that can change how public defense is practiced within this state.”
Hampton, an Austin defense lawyer who has tried death penalty cases from accusation through appeals at the U.S. Supreme Court, said he would bring a new philosophy to the court.
“My view includes two components,” he said. “One is fairness of the process. The other is getting it right. The result does matter. Have you achieved justice in the end of the day?”
Hampton, who has more than $14,000 in his campaign coffer, said when he speaks to moderate Republicans about the differences between himself and Keller, they are won over. Democrats are already likely to vote for him. It’s those undecided moderate GOPers, he said, who are critical to his victory. The challenge, he said, is reaching them with his limited funds.
“It’s a function of money,” he said. “If they know about the race they will not vote for her, and they will vote for me.”
Like other Republican judicial candidates, Olsen said, Keller has had difficulty raising money. In the first six months of 2012, she received just one $500 contribution. And in recent elections, he said, Democratic judicial candidates have gained ground against their Republican opponents.
Those factors combined with Keller’s negative history, he said, combine to make her a weaker candidate. But Hampton’s relatively meager fundraising for a statewide campaign that typically requires millions for effective advertising, isn’t likely to be enough to push out even a weakened incumbent.
“He just needs more resources to do it,” Olsen said.
Editor's Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Keith Hampton has more than $14,000 in his campaign account. An earlier version of this story reported an incorrect amount.