Judge issues gag order in Kent case

Marilyn Tennissen Sep. 9, 2008, 11:48am

Judge Samuel Kent

Citing a small handful of news stories to support his decision, U.S. District Judge Roger Vinson took a big step and issued a gag order in the criminal case of a Houston federal judge.

Vinson, a senior district judge from Pensacola, was assigned Sept. 5 to preside over the sexual abuse case of U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent of the Southern District of Texas-Houston Division. As soon as he received the case, Vinson's first action was to issue a gag order to stop what he claims is the parties' "willingness to 'try this case in the press."

Kent was indicted by a grand jury on charges of abusive sexual contact and attempted aggravated sexual abuse of a female employee, making him the first federal judge to be charged with federal sex crimes. The maximum penalty is life in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Vinson said the gag order was his own idea because of the "extensive local and national publicity" on the case. However the judge cites only five media reports as evidence of extensive coverage: two stories in the Houston Chronicle, one from the Galveston Daily News, one from CNN and one from ABC News.

"Because this case is, and undoubtedly will continue to be, highly scrutinized by the media, and because I find that there is a substantial likelihood that extrajudicial commentary by the trial participants will likely taint the jury pool and will undermine a fair trial to which both the accused and the public are entitled, I find it necessary to take action, sua sponte, to preserve a fair trial by an impartial jury by shielding jurors and potential jurors from prejudicial statements," Judge Vinson writes in the Sept. 5 order.

"I also recognize that a balancing of First Amendment rights of speech and Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial is required. After careful consideration, this order attempts to do that."

The order prohibits courthouse personnel, attorneys, security officers, law enforcement officers assisting in the trial, the alleged victim and all other witnesses or Kent from making "any extrajudicial statement or interview to any person or persons associated with any public communications media."

Vinson did allow that these same people may publicly state the general nature of the case, information in the public record, scheduling information and public court decisions, but may not elaborate.

"It is further ordered that any and all courthouse personnel shall under no circumstances disclose to any person, without express authorization by the court, information relating to this case that is not part of the public record of this court," he wrote.

The judge may be planning to conduct some of the proceedings behind closed doors, since the order also "specifically forbids the divulgence of information concerning arguments and hearings held in chambers or otherwise outside the presence of the public."

Steven Lubet, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law, told the Houston Chronicle that he found the gag order "troubling," and said he has never heard of a federal judge issuing an order like Vinson's on his own.

"It doesn't seem like the case of a federal judge as defendant ought to be the path breaker," the Chronicle reported Lubet as saying. "When the defendant is a judge, the system needs to bend over backwards to stay open, not closed."

Vinson, from the federal court in the Northern District of Florida, was assigned to the Kent case after the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals thought it was necessary to designate a judge from outside the circuit.

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