Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 2
Mary Lou Keel ✔
TPP recommends Mary Lou Keel
Three qualified sitting District Court judges are vying to replace the Position 2 incumbent, Judge Lawrence Meyers, who switched parties after he was elected as a Republican in 2010. While Judge Oldner declined to participate in our vetting process, Judges Keel and Wheless appear to share our conservative values. However, there is a significant difference in judicial experience between these three candidates, which heavily tips the scale in favor of Judge Keel.
MARY LOU KEEL
Judge Mary Lou Keel has spent all but the first year of her career focused exclusively on criminal law. For the last 21 years, Judge Keel has presided over the 232nd District Court in Harris County, a felony trial court which exclusively tries the same kinds of cases that make up the overwhelming majority of the cases reviewed by the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals. During this time, Judge Keel has presided over 5 trials which resulted in a death penalty verdict. All of these death penalty cases have been affirmed on appeal. In addition, Judge Keel has effectively dealt with the post-conviction writs that inevitably followed these 5 verdicts.
Prior to being elected to this court in 1994, Judge Keel served one year as a briefing attorney for one of the Texas Courts of Appeal, giving her valuable appellate experience. She also spent 8 years in the Harris County District Attorney’s office, during which time she handled 279 criminal appeals. Judge Keel has been Board Certified in Criminal Law for 25 years. There is no question that Judge Keel has dedicated her professional life to criminal justice.
Judge Ray Wheless has presided over the 366th District Court in Collin County since 2009. The 366th is a general jurisdiction court that hears both civil and criminal cases. While Judge Wheless has heard capital murder cases in this court, he has not had any experience with a death penalty trial. According to Judge Wheless, this is due to the fact that Collin County’s District Attorney has not sought the death penalty in any capital murder cases during the period Judge Wheless has been on the bench.
Prior to his present position, from 2000 to 2009, Judge Wheless was the judge of one of Collin County’s County Courts of Law, where he heard civil and criminal misdemeanor cases. Before that, he was in private practice. Judge Wheless is Board Certified in Civil and Personal Injury Trial Law.
Judge Wheless is the only candidate in this race who spent part of his career in private practice and has never worked as a prosecutor; something he believes provides an advantage in this race. Considering the rigorous focus of the Court of Criminal Appeals on criminal law, we are not persuaded that Judge Wheless’ private practice experience, notable as it is, outweighs the profound experience and expertise Judge Keel has obtained in her years of concentrated work in criminal law.
Judge Chris Oldner has presided over the 416th District Court in Collin County since 2003. He also apparently serves as the Local Administrative Judge for the eight District Courts in Collin County. As best we can determine, Judge Oldner’s court is a general jurisdiction court that hears both civil and criminal cases. However, unlike Judge Wheless, we understand that Judge Oldner may have been involved in 1 death penalty case at each stage of litigation: trial, appeal and writ; so he has some experience in this very important part of the Court of Criminal Appeals area of responsibility.
Judge Oldner apparently began his legal career as a prosecutor, first with the Smith County District Attorney and later with the Collin County District Attorney, where he became the chief felony prosecutor. His last position before becoming the Judge of the 416th was Judge of Collin County’s County Court at Law 5, where he served for 3 years hearing civil and criminal misdemeanor cases. Like Judge Keel, Judge Oldner is Board Certified in Criminal Law.
Judge Oldner’s “claim to fame” has been his recent involvement with the Collin County grand jury that indicted Attorney General Ken Paxton. Judge Oldner has been judicially cleared of wrongdoing with respect to this matter and we accept that ruling.
Based upon their peer rankings, all three of these candidates are good-to-great judges. The Houston Bar Association’s 2015 rankings of the 22 Harris County’s Criminal District Court judges ranked Judge Keel second most “Outstanding” of all the judges (1.3% behind the leader) in the “Overall” category. In addition, Judge Keel was ranked as the most “Outstanding” in the “Follows the Law”, “Rules Decisively and Timely”, “Demonstrates Impartiality” and “Works Hard and is Prepared” categories.
The Collin County Bar Association uses different criteria in their evaluations. The “Excellent” category of the 2014 Collin County Bar Association’s judicial poll of the county’s 9 District Court judges, ranks Judge Oldner 2nd and Judge Wheless 3rd overall. In the categories “Correctly Applies the Law”, “Ability to Comprehend Legal Concepts” and “Ability to Analytically Reach Decisions” categories, Judge Oldner ranked 1st, 3rd and 1st, and Judge Wheless ranked 2nd, 5th and 4th.
While these peer rankings are not scientific, they may be an indication of the level of peer respect a judge might elicit if he or she were elected to a higher court. Since appellate court rulings are based on consensus, the effectiveness of a judge is to some extent derived from his or her ability to build a consensus around their proposed rulings.
There has been an unfortunate amount of mud-slinging in this race; with candidates challenging each other’s judicial records or conservative bona fides. The PAC has spent an inordinate amount of time running down each allegation and finds no evidence that any of the judges running for this position should be disqualified on the basis of their judicial records. In process of doing this analysis, it has become increasingly clear that Judge Mary Lou Keel’s judicial record in felony criminal law is exceptional and, of the three candidates, she is much better qualified for Place 2 on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. We are further convinced that Judge Keel is a staunch conservative who shares our values.
WORD OF CONCERN
As mentioned above, Judge Oldner elected not to participate in our vetting process. This is unfortunate, since he would have found us fair minded; determined to identify the candidate that would best represent our values on the Court of Criminal Appeals. Had he participated, we would have asked him about the following quote which, taken out of context, appears overreaching and possibly equating the work of groups like ours with the recent attempted murder of an Austin judge:
“I think we see dark-money special interests that are attacking on social media…We see outside groups trying to influence not only through social media and websites but also something as extreme as what we saw in Austin a couple months ago with the Austin Criminal Court judge that was attacked outside of her home. And these groups are trying to influence outcomes and it’s really something that strong judges need to do, stand up for and push up against.”