The Impeachment of Federal District Court Judge Samuel B. Kent

Article excerpt

Pursuant to the Constitution, federal officials can be impeached for "Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors" (Art. II, § 4). In the history of the United States, two presidents, a senator, and a secretary of war have faced impeachment trials in the Senate. Of these, only Senator William Blount was expelled by the Senate in 1799, while the others were acquitted of impeachment. In addition, thirteen federal judges have faced an impeachment trial, nine of whom were found guilty by the Senate or resigned from the bench before final action in the Senate. Justice Samuel Chase, who was acquitted by the Senate, is the only Supreme Court justice to have been impeached by the House. A fourteenth name can now be added to this list of impeached federal judges. On June 19, 2009, former Judge Samuel B. Kent was impeached by the House of Representatives, after he had pled guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to a judicial committee investigating sexual harassment charges against him. Kent thereafter resigned from his position after the House formally presented to the Senate four articles of impeachment against him. Former federal judge Kent is currently serving a thirty-three-month sentence for the obstruction charge.1

The Constitution provides the House with the "sole Power of Impeachment" (Art. I, § 2), while the Senate has the "sole Power to try all Impeachments" (Art. I, § 3). We know from the Supreme Court's decision in Waiter Nixon v. U.S. (506 U.S. 224, 1993), concerning the last federal judge to be impeached before Kent, that the Senate has the power to decide how impeachment trials are to be handled, without judicial supervision of its impeachment procedures. We also know that impeachment is not necessarily the end of a career in public service. Indeed, just three years after his impeachment by the Senate in 1989, former federal judge Alcee Hastings was elected to the House of Representatives, where he continues to serve Florida's 23rd District. Whether due to his impeachment experience, partisan affiliation, or beliefs on the merits, it is not surprising that Rep. Hastings voted against impeaching President Bill Clinton in 1998.

How did Kent become the latest judge to face an impeachment trial? After engaging in private practice, Kent was nominated by President George H. W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 1990 to serve on the Federal District Court, Southern District of Texas, located in Galveston. After being accused by his former case manager that he had sexually harassed her, a special committee of the Judicial Council for the Fifth Federal Circuit in 2007 reprimanded him for his behavior and ordered a fourmonth leave of absence, with pay. He was subsequently indicted by a grand jury on two counts of abusive sexual contact and one count of attempted aggravated sexual abuse. Kent pled not guilty to the federal criminal charges. Four months later the grand jury added additional charges against Kent, including aggravated sexual abuse, abusive sexual contact, and obstruction of justice, for alleged behavior with another woman, his secretary. In a plea deal in February 2009, Kent pled guilty to one count of obstruction of justice, in which he admitted that he forced himself upon these women and lied to investigators about his actions. In May 2009 Kent was sentenced to nearly three years in prison.

Despite his guilty plea and sentence, Kent did not resign from the bench; instead, he claimed he suffered from alcoholism, depression, and bipolar disease and was thus entitled to disability retirement, including his full salary and benefits. Since Kent would be collecting his judicial salary while in prison, the House Judiciary Committee began considering impeachment articles against him. Concurrently, the Judicial Council for the Fifth Circuit (which previously reprimanded Kent), ruled that Kent should be impeached. …