Time to bench Judge Kent

The SE Texas Record Feb. 9, 2008, 5:18am

U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent is known to play favorites, say some lawyers in Galveston, where he's served on the federal court for 17 years.

After siding with one of them in an important ruling potentially worth millions of dollars, Kent adjourned the court and the two went to lunch, according to news reports.

Kent and hotshot local plaintiff's lawyer Tony Buzbee dined at Willie G's, an upscale Galveston seafood restaurant with a harbor view. Buzbee gave the judge a lift in his Aston Martin sports car.

While it appears undignified and injudicious, there's nothing illegal about them eating lunch together. That's assuming Kent's ruling, granting Buzbee's pressure-inducing motion to depose BP's ex-CEO Lord John Browne, didn't come up in conversation. Nobody has said that it did.

But in our democracy, where courts are public forums, Buzbee's record of success in Judge Kent's lair is fair game for examination. It's one thing for a judge to dine and socialize with lawyer friends, but quite another to play favorites in the process of dispensing justice.

So it's worth noting--Judge Kent's decision to let Buzbee depose Browne was no legalistic slam dunk. Rather, it was an activist reach.

Beaumont's Brent Coon later successfully pulled the same stunt in state court with Circuit Judge Susan Criss, demanding a deposition with the ex-CEO. But the judge was sternly rebuffed last month by the State Supreme Court for allowing it, her order forcefully overturned.

Kent's order in the BP case proved decisive and lucrative. Two weeks after his sports car cruise and lunch, Buzbee settled his 52 cases with the oil giant for "an undisclosed sum."

Rest assured, it included a nice number with many zeroes after.

So did Judge Kent make the decision because he likes being seen with Buzbee at hot spots around town? Or was it a principled interpretation of the law?

There's no way to know for certain. But it's devastating to the judge's credibility that we even have to ask. In public evaluations of a judicial ethics, there's no winning by preponderance of the evidence.

Judge Kent shouldn't be dining regularly with lawyers with cases before his court. He shouldn't be cruising the streets of Galveston with them either.

Kent's cavalier attitude toward protecting his own court's integrity is unacceptable and unforgivable. It's also permanently damaging to
the institution.

Perhaps the ongoing FBI investigation of his conduct, according to published reports, will provide some hard answers about his judicial ethics and honesty. The people deserve them.

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