A titty bar, $200 worth of beer and tequila shots, and a conservative Republican judge: a combo more volatile than atomic fission. The question is, Will the Texas GOP go thermonuclear when it learns one of its highest-ranking jurists, Court of Criminal Appeals Judge Sharon Keller, owns the building and property housing the Doll's House, a Dallas topless joint?
Keller's connection to the low-end strip bar emerged earlier this month when Flower Mound attorney S. Rafe Foreman asked that she be barred from hearing the appeal of one of his criminal clients because Foreman had sued the judge's property company in an unrelated case. Last year, Foreman filed suit against Keller's company, Sharon Batjer Inc., on behalf of a 16-year-old whose car was hit by a drunken driver who allegedly had consumed $200 worth of tequila shots and beer at the Doll's House one night in November 1997. Batjer is Keller's former husband's name, and corporate and court records say she is president and majority shareholder in the company.
Foreman dropped Keller's company from the suit and reached an out-of-court settlement with the bar's owners, Dimitri Papathanasiou and Solinka Inc., earlier this year, court records show.
Keller, reached Friday in her court office in Austin, said Foreman's motion in the criminal case linking her to the bar was filed solely "to discredit me...I don't think it does."
The judge says she was "not particularly familiar" with the leasing of the property to the Doll's House. "Let me say it this way," Keller says. "I own a considerable amount of property. For the most part I am unfamiliar with the details of ownership and leasing and tenants and all that stuff. I did not know I owned that particular property. I don't know what my lease and tenant contracts are."
Sharon Batjer Inc., which was incorporated in 1985, owns only one piece of real estate in Dallas County, appraisal district records show. It's the Doll's House property at 6509 E. Northwest Highway, near its intersection with Abrams Road. It's valued on tax rolls at $1.3 million.
When asked how that constitutes widespread holdings with which she was unfamiliar, Keller replied: "That company is not my only asset." Keller says she is familiar with the fact that the bar is at that location, two doors down from her family's long-established business, Keller's drive-in hamburger stand.
The subject of complaints from neighborhood groups over the years, the bar was the source of 17 police calls in the 12 months ending October 31, police records show. Police say one rape, two assaults, and four thefts were included in those statistics.
"Wow," Keller replied when told of those numbers. "I didn't know that." She says she doesn't plan to do anything in response to her ownership of the bar property becoming public. She says it is a legal business.
The outing of Keller's strip-bar interest was done through an anonymous mailing that reached the Dallas Observer last week. Keller called the distribution of the court papers a clear case of politics and accused Foreman of filing them for political purposes -- a charge Foreman denies. "I don't anticipate this will be a problem," Keller says. "I think people will see it as just an example of dirty politics."
Keller has laid the groundwork for a run at the position of presiding judge on the appeals court, which rules on all Texas death-penalty cases and sits as the state's highest court on criminal matters. (See "Dissed robes," page 15.) Keller, a former prosecutor who won a first term in 1994, must run next year to retain a seat on the court.
"I'm disappointed this is being distributed," Foreman says. "My client [in the initial civil suit] is a kid, and I haven't wanted his identity revealed. My sole motivation is the protection of my client in the criminal case before the appeals court. You don't want to have your client judged by someone you've sued."
Last year, Foreman brought a $4.5 million suit on behalf of Blair Marcus McAnally, a 16-year-old who sustained two broken legs and a broken arm in a collision the suit claimed was caused by James Key. The suit alleged that Key drank a large amount of tequila and beer at the Doll's House the night he ran his car into McAnally's and that the bar continued to serve him after he was obviously intoxicated.
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Foreman said that after he learned Keller's company had no control over operations of the bar, he dropped it from the lawsuit. He said the bar's lease with Keller's company, which was redone earlier this year, helped demonstrate that there was no control. "The lease isn't based on a percentage of table dances or drinks sold. It's for a flat amount of money," Foreman says.
Key's insurance company paid $20,000 in damages early this year, and Foreman reached a confidential out-of-court settlement with the bar's owners. Subsequently, Foreman began representing Timothy Paul Duke in a drunken driving case that landed in the appeals court in Austin. Keller removed herself from hearing Duke's appeal on October 28, but said it was unlikely she would have heard that case anyway.
When he learned Keller owned the bar property, Foreman says, "I couldn't believe it. This is one of the most right-wing, conservative judges...Yes, it shocked me." Foreman says he found the Doll's House to be so forbidding, his private detective refused to go in.
Keller has a reputation as a pro-prosecution judge who has broken with the appeals court majority in several cases in which she refused to overturn death sentences. In 1996, for instance, the court majority cited prosecutorial misconduct dating back 20 years and ordered a new trial for Kerry Max Cook, who was accused of a 1977 murder of a Tyler secretary. (See "Innocence lost," July 15 and July 22.) Keller was one of three judges on the nine-member panel who voted to uphold Cook's conviction.