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May 11, 2009

Any predictions on former Judge Sam Kent's sentence? UPDATE: 33 months

This article in today's Houston Chronicle indicates that former federal judge Samuel Kent has his sentencing hearing today:

Samuel Kent, who wielded power as a federal judge for 18 years, is very likely to be sentenced to prison today for obstructing justice.  Kent, 59, pleaded guilty in February to obstruction of justice for lying to a judicial committee investigating an allegation he sexually harassed an employee.  The longtime Galveston judge also acknowledged that he’d had nonconsensual sexual contact with two female employees between 2003 and 2007.

Kent came to court this morning with his wife and three others.  He walked through the courthouse front door rather than using the secure back entrance for working jurists.  Prosecutors arrived in court with some of Kent's alleged victims and their attorneys.  The women who brought complaints against Kent cannot testify in court but were interviewed for the pre-sentencing report.

Five criminal charges against Kent related to the sexual contact were dropped.  But all of Kent’s actions are to be considered by Senior U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson of Pensacola, Fla., in determining Kent’s sentence.

The obstruction charge carries a maximum punishment of 20 years in prison.  Prosecutors requested that the man appointed to the bench by President George H.W. Bush in 1990 be sentenced to three years in prison, but Vinson is not bound by that recommendation.

Arthur Hellman, a Pittsburgh-based legal expert in judicial discipline, said Kent’s case will be closely watched.  “It is important because it implicates the ability of the judiciary to police itself,” Hellman said.  “If the sentence is substantially below the three years specified in the plea bargain, some people will say that the judge is going easy on a fellow judge. If the sentence is especially harsh, it will seem that Judge Kent is being made an example because of his position.”...

Judge Vinson handled Kent’s case in a very secretive manner by Houston standards.  Without being asked to do so, Vinson placed a gag order on the lawyers and witnesses to keep the jury from being tainted.  But even after Kent pleaded guilty and there would be no jury, Vinson continued the gag order until media challenged it and Kent could cite no law to keep it in place.  Vinson also had more than 20 sealed events before Kent’s plea.

As I have indicated in prior posts, I fear that former Judge Kent has already been treated too leniently given that he has admitted to illegal sexual conduct with two employees and then lied to fellow jurists when his illegal behavior started to be investigated.  I can think of few other (repeat) sex offenders who would have gotten such a sweet plea deal on the eve of trial and such respectful treatment from the court and federal prosecutors. 

In addition, I sense that the true victims here — the two women subject to former Judge Kent's sexual abuse — have been poorly treated by the federal criminal process despite the recent passage of the Crime Victim Rights Act designed to give them some statutory protections.  I sincerely hope their punishment interests are fully reflected in whatever sentence was recommended by the presentence report and whatever sentence gets imposed by Judge Vinson.

I also hope, writing now as an professor who used this case in a class as an example of the challenges of modern guideline sentencing (see here and here and here), that the guideline calculations in the case become a matter of public record at some point.  Notably, for anyone interested, the students in my class suggested sentences ranging from as low as 6 months and as high as 15 years when I urged them to consider what sentence they might impose without the aid of any guidelines or other sentencing rules beyond the statutory min and max provided for the offense of conviction.

Related posts on the Kent proceedings:

UDPATE:  The article linked above now reports the results of the sentencing: "Samuel Kent, who wielded power as a federal judge for 18 years, was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison today for obstructing justice."  As suggested above, this seems like a pretty lenient sentence given his admitted sexual conduct, but his plea deal revealed that this was all that the federal prosecutors were looking for.  I hope to learn more about the particulars of the proceeding, and I likely will have further comments about this high-profile case if/when more details from the sentencing emerge.

May 11, 2009 at 12:07 PM | Permalink


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He needs to spend more than 3 years in prison.

Posted by: federalist | May 11, 2009 12:47:17 PM

I don't know what Supremecy Clause will say here, but I believe that any form of misconduct by a judge should be the basis for a mandatory death sentence. The incredible insulation and trust that must be expected of judicial officers leaves no room for treating those in Kent's position as ordinary criminal offeners.

He absolutely should be made an example of.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | May 11, 2009 12:58:14 PM

Doug, I share your concerns. Wasn't there a Sixth Circuit case about 7-8 years ago where a state judge was coercing sex from litigants? What happened to that judge may be an interesting datapoint.

This was an abuse of power. That needs to be factored into the sentence. The abuse is so clear and so reprehensible. It's one thing for an abuser to commit the abuse, but for an abuser to flaunt his ability to abuse is doubly demeaning for the victims, and that needs to be taken into account at sentencing.

Does anyone know how egregious the sexual assaults were? Were they forced gropings? That's an issue as well.

Posted by: federalist | May 11, 2009 3:08:09 PM

As a hobby I often listen to oral argument from the 7th Circuit. Often, a person might plead to crime A, and at sentencing the judge will make findings (not the result of a jury conviction) to enhance a sentence from charged crime B. I'm curious if by pleading to the obstruction charge only, Mr. Kent is able to avoid all consequence of the charges in the indictment. Did the sentencing judge have the discretion to make any findings from the pre-sentence report to mandate, for example, sex offender registration in addition to a penalty for obstruction?

Posted by: JustACitizenEngineer | May 11, 2009 3:29:30 PM

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