Who's judging the judges?

The SE Texas Record Jun. 13, 2009, 2:00pm

The wheels of justice turn slowly sometimes, especially when the defendant is a judge.

Samuel Kent was a federal judge for 17 years -- a judge who considered himself to be above the law.

He was known to play favorites, and favored attorneys profited handsomely from cases he decided.

He also played favorites with female employees who were not grateful for the special attention.

Recently awarded a change of venue thanks to a guilty plea, Kent will preside over a prison cell for the next 33 months. His power to grant favors or force his favors on others finally has been nullified.

Kent pled guilty to obstruction of justice for lying to prosecutors about sexually assaulting two members of his courthouse staff. This week the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to recommended that Kent be impeached and removed from his lifetime position with its $174,000 annual salary. The full House is likely to oblige, and a Senate trial will follow. Until he is impeached, he will continue to be paid in 2009.

Justice delayed is justice denied, and Kent's comeuppance was a long time coming. A lifetime appointment may protect the independence of a federal judge, but it may also encourage running amuck. Lord Acton noted, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

As unappealing as judicial elections sometimes seem, they do require sitting judges and prospective judges to present themselves on a regular basis to the citizenry, the ones paying judicial salaries and being judged. To be sure, Judge Kent would not long have survived voter scrutiny. Or, perhaps, fearing their wrath, he might have behaved himself.

Judges can't all be Solomons, but surely there needs to be a threshold for competence and integrity, and an appropriate, speedy mechanism for taking action when that threshold is not met. When it takes months and years for the entire U.S. Congress and Senate to remove one bad local federal judge who gets paid during the entire process, it might be time to consider a new process.

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