The National Law Journal by Pamela A. MacLean - February 25, 2009
The terms of former U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent's abrupt retirement following his guilty plea Feb. 23 to obstructing an internal investigation of sexual contact with a former courtroom deputy, remains shrouded in secrecy. Kent, who is 59, is not eligible for retirement under judiciary rules, which require a judge to be 65 and have at least 15 years service to retire. His only other option would be a disability retirement, which requires Chief Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to certify he is disabled and notify the president. Jones' office declined any comment on the status of Kent's retirement Tuesday and refused to provide a copy of certification of the basis for his disability. The Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington, D.C., also declined to comment on Kent's retirement status. Kent's attorney Richard DeGuerin, of DeGuerin & Dickson in Houston, has also declined to comment beyond a prepared statement following the guilty plea that Kent was "retiring" effective immediately.
A spokesman at the White House referred questions about the terms of Kent's retirement and his official notification back to the judge. Kent's decision to retire, rather than resign, would allow him to retain his full salary and benefits, according to a reading of the statute by the Administrative Office of the Courts in Washington, D.C. If he had resigned from office, he would be left with nothing after 18 years on the federal bench in Houston and Galveston, Texas. In addition, as part of the plea bargain, the federal prosecutors agreed not to seek more than three years in prison when Kent returns for sentencing May 11, although obstruction carries a maximum of 20 years in prison. His case came to light at a time the federal judiciary was in the midst of overhauling its secretive discipline system as public complaints grew that the decentralized system of local control of discipline among the circuits lead to lax enforcement of complaints against judges.
Kent was accused by a former case manager, Cathy McBroom, and later his secretary Donna Wilkerson, of nonconsensual sexual conduct. McBroom complained in May 2007 about incidents in Aug. 2003 and March 2007. Wilkerson accused Kent of nonconsensual sexual contact from 2004 to at least 2005. Kent testified during a June 2007 hearing by a special investigative committee of the 5th Circuit that he only kissed McBroom once and stopped when she rebuffed him, when in fact he engaged in repeated unwanted advances, according to a three-page statement of facts accompanying the plea. Lying to the investigative committee was the basis of the obstruction of justice charge. The 5th Circuit suspended Kent in 2008 for four months and issued a public reprimand but McBroom's family pressed the issue publicly, including demonstrations outside the courthouse, helping to push the eventual criminal investigation by the Justice Department's Public Integrity Section. "It is very sad it has come to this," said Arthur Hellman, law professor and judicial discipline expert at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. "Certainly, if the full extent of his activity had come out at an earlier stage it would have been far better if the chief judge had arranged for a quiet resignation, rather than this criminal prosecution."
"The courts need to set up an early warning system for situations like this. They are not common, but even if it is only used once every 10 years it would be helpful," he said. "The appearance of special treatment, whether warranted or not, is something of a blot on the court system to allow it to reach this point," Hellman said. Under federal Rules of Evidence 11b(3), judges must determine if there is a factual basis for a change of plea to guilty, according to defense lawyers. This is customarily done by asking the defendant to describe the crime in his own words, asking the government to recite the facts and confirming the accuracy or finally, by including a written set of facts with the plea agreement. Kent chose not to comment in court Monday but included the brief outline of facts with his plea agreement.
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