It’s been more than a decade since Sharon Keller became an international figure in the death penalty debate.
On the afternoon of Sept. 25, 2007, when attorneys for death row inmate Michael Richard asked if they could file an appeal at the court a few minutes past their deadline, Keller, the presiding judge of the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals since 2000, famously insisted “we close at five.” Richard was executed hours later.
The incident earned Keller questions from the state Commission on Judicial Conduct and widespread criticism from Texas legislators, ethics experts and the impassioned authors of sharonkiller.com, a website sparked by the incident.
Keller says the controversy is behind her. David Bridges disagrees.
Bridges, a justice on Texas' 5th District Court of Appeals, is making Keller's past ethical controversies central to his campaign to unseat her in next year's Republican primary.
“I have to tell [voters] that she’s had a few lapses in judgment,” Bridges said. “If the voters don’t know who we are and what our backgrounds are, then how do they make a choice?”
For her part, Keller said she is not approaching this election any differently than she did her past races. Elections, she said, are “cleansing” — and voters knew her when they elected her the last time around, rendering any past controversies moot.
“What you’re asking me about are things that happened in the past. In the time since then, the voters have decided to keep me on the court,” Keller said in an interview with The Texas Tribune last month. “What’s important now is whether I’m qualified — whether I’m the best candidate for the job.”
Keller, who has served on the court since 1994, insists that experience is the most important consideration in her re-election. Bridges argues that her past should disqualify her from a seat whose occupant should be above reproach.
And he has not been shy about bringing that up. On his campaign website, Bridges writes, “I ask you to Google her name Sharon Keller ethics,” even providing a link.
Along with the infamous Richards execution, Bridges also points to criticism Keller drew in the late 1990s, when a property she owned in Dallas County housed a strip club called the Doll’s House. And in 2010 she was fined $100,000 by the Texas Ethics Commission for failing to disclose nearly $3 million of personal real estate holdings. (She later negotiated the sum, which was the largest civil penalty ever levied by the Commission, down to $25,000).
Keller’s past came up in 2012, when she was last up for re-election. But that time around her primary challenger dropped out months before voting began, and in a statewide judicial race in deep-red Texas, even a controversial Republican incumbent is likely to best a Democratic challenger. No Democrat has won statewide office in Texas since 1994, and judicial races rarely draw much attention.
“If she faces a Democrat, the only thing important about her will be the ‘R’ after her name,” said Craig McDonald, the executive director of a watchdog group that filed a complaint against Keller in 2009. “That dynamic may change a little bit in a Republican primary. The race becomes a little more interesting.”
In 2012, Keller won her seat with 55 percent of the vote; the other two incumbents from the Court of Criminal Appeals on the ballot that year, Judges Barbara Parker Hervey and Elsa Alcala, each took 78 percent. Keith Hampton, the Democrat who ran against Keller six years ago and drew 41 percent of the vote, said he is positive that his party affiliation is the only reason he didn’t win.
"The reality is that people don't flock to the polls to vote for judges," said Hampton, who doesn't plan to pursue the seat again next year. "It didn't matter the individual race. They went in, they punched 'R,' they walked out."