Judge Samuel Kent
It is improper for judges to seek or accept gifts from those with business before their courts, but whether it is proper for judges to jump into a lawyer's sports car and head off for a seafood lunch is a different matter coming into question in Galveston.
An anonymous source told the Galveston Daily News that U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent had lunch with Tony Buzbee – a lawyer who filed suit against oil giant BP in October 2006 – just after he ruled for the lawyer on a deposition request.
The anonymous source said minutes after Kent had ordered BP's CEO to sit for a deposition regarding the Texas City explosion at the BP refinery in 2005, he jumped in Buzbee's Aston to go to lunch.
Neither Buzbee nor Kent's lawyer, Dick DeGuerin, confirmed that the lunch occurred, but DeGuerin said Buzbee and Kent were good friends and there was nothing improper about the two having lunch together.
"I've probably brought all the judges in town there at one time or another," Buzbee told the newspaper.
He said it would be ridiculous to think a federal judge would rule for him in exchange for a $30 lunch. "If there is something wrong with it, you might as well indict every lawyer and every judge on this island," he said.
The Code of Conduct for Federal Judges says judges must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety.
"Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges," it says. "A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny. A judge must therefore accept restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen and should do so freely and willingly."
"The test for appearance of impropriety is whether the conduct would create in reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances that a reasonable inquiry would disclose, a perception that the judge's ability to carry out judicial responsibilities with integrity, impartiality, and competence is impaired," it says.
DeGuerin and Buzbee have said there is nothing wrong with a judge and a lawyer socializing, as long as they do not discuss the case without the lawyer from the other side. Buzbee insisted that he never discussed cases when he was alone with Kent, and DeGuerin said the judge didn't do that with any lawyer.
Kent has already had his share of problems. In September 2007 he received a four-month suspension after a court employee accused him of sexual harassment.
The FBI is now looking into Kent's activities and the investigation has gone beyond the sexual misconduct allegations.
Agents have been reportedly interviewing restaurant workers about meals and drinks Kent may have had with lawyers and others.
Kent's relationship with some of the lawyers has already been questioned by the Galveston legal community.
Galveston attorney Mark Stevens has been a critic of Kent's social network. When contacted by the Southeast Texas Record, Kent declined an interview, but referred the Record to a column he wrote last November when Kent was transferred out of Galveston to Houston.
"Everything I have to say I have already said in writing," Stevens said via telephone on Feb. 7.
Stevens wrote that a "handful of favored lawyers was perceived to have special favor with Kent. Those lawyers were known as gatekeepers by some 'unfavored' lawyers who were often treated like dirt, or worse, by Kent."
Kent systematically abused "nonfavored" lawyers, Stevens wrote, either by his rulings in court or in the opinions he wrote.
He wrote that as Kent bragged in repeated opinions, his docket became one of the busiest in the country, and a "handful of Kent's buddies filled his court with cases having no relation whatsoever to Galveston or this area."
Stevens found it ironic that Kent was transferred after one of his published opinions read like a warning to all litigants that any case filed by one of Kent's favorites in Galveston was, "by golly, going to stay in Galveston and woe betide any who would monkey with the system emerging in Kent's personal realm."
In denying a defendant's request for a transfer to Houston, Stevens wrote that Kent went out of his way to mock the defendant's complaints about making the drive from the Houston airport to Galveston, as well as the defendants themselves.
Stevens quotes from Kent's opinion in Smith vs. Colonial Penn Insurance Company: "Defendant will be pleased to discover that the highway is paved and lighted all the way to Galveston and, thanks to the efforts of this court's predecessor, Judge Roy Bean, the trip should be free of rustlers, hooligans, or vicious varmints of any kind."