AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Two of Texas' top judges have been able to put off paying huge ethics fines for more than two years, and neither case stands to be resolved before Election Day when both are on the ballot for new six-year terms.
The $100,000 fine in 2010 against Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, and the $29,000 fine levied against state Supreme Court Justice Nathan Hecht in 2008 rank among the largest in state history.
Both Republicans have appealed the fines and the cases have dragged on the point where court watchdogs and political opponents are asking if state ethics laws are truly a deterrent.
"It reeks," said Alex Winslow, director of Texas Watch, which monitors the state Supreme Court and filed the original ethics complaint against Hecht. "You've got a large fine that was intended to send a message. (The delay) causes real questions about the legitimacy of the process."
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.
Keith Hampton, a Democrat running against Keller, and Michele Petty, a Democrat running against Hecht, have tried to make the fines a campaign issue in both races, but both sitting judges are expected to win re-election in a state that hasn't elected a Democrat to statewide office in nearly 20 years.
Hecht's attorney, Steve McConnico, didn't respond to a message seeking comment.
The attorney handling Keller's appeal, former state Rep. Joe Nixon, said the appeal process in ethics cases is designed to be slow and protects the rights of those penalized for ethics violations by allowing them to go to court.
"Individuals have rights and they are entitled to due process. The ethics commission is not a court, it's a commission," Nixon said.
"The burden is now on the state," to prove a violation of the law, Nixon said.
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.
Petty's campaign says Hecht is being protected by Republican cronyism. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott's office is representing the ethics panel in the appeal. Abbott is a former state Supreme Court justice who was on the bench with Hecht from 1995 to 2001.
The Petty campaign has also noted the special judge assigned to Hecht's case is a retired judge who ran for office as a Republican. The judge overseeing Keller's case is a Democrat.
Hecht was fined after the ethics commission determined he broke campaign finance laws. He racked up a large legal bill fighting allegations that he abused his position in 2005 by openly supporting President George W. Bush's short-lived U.S. Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, a longtime friend of Hecht's. Hecht was then given an estimated $168,000 discount on legal fees he received from attorney Chip Babcock and his law firm, Jackson Walker.
Hecht argues that the discount was legal and proper. The ethics panel determined the reduction in fees was actually a campaign contribution that violated judicial campaign finance limits and was not listed as a donation on the judge's campaign finance reports. Texas judges can't receive donations exceeding $5,000 from law firms.
Keller was fined for submitting sworn personal income statements for 2007 and 2008 that didn't mention properties valued at more than $2 million, total, and other income sources totaling about $183,000.
Nixon said those were simple mistakes and not ethics violations, and that Keller has filed corrected reports.
Hampton dismisses Keller's explanation as bogus. Keller has served on the court since 1994 and has filed similar reports many times.
"They're not difficult to figure out," Hampton said.