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Former Judge Samuel B. Kent

After weeks of plea-bargaining, over a hundred people filed into Judge C. Robert Vinson’s courtroom, a conservative, hardline judge known for issuing maximum sentences. Supporters, haters, the media, and people who didn’t know what to think were seated side by side to hear the fate of Judge Kent. Judge Samuel B. Kent was born on June 22, 1949 in Denver, Colorado. A double graduate of the University of Texas – the undergraduate and law programs – he was appointed to the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas in the Fall of 1990 by then President George H.W. Bush after a recommendation by Texas U.S. Senator Phil Gramm. Kent was one of 41 District Judges within the Southern District of Texas, which is one of nine districts within the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. Assigned to the Galveston Division of the Federal Court, Kent had rule over federal cases for Brazoria, Chambers, Galveston, and Matagorda counties all located on the Gulf coast of Texas, which often heard maritime pleadings due to its port location. He was the only District Judge in the division.

A towering 6’4”, 275 pounds, he wasn’t overweight, but he wasn’t fit either. He was a star basketball player at Houston’s Memorial High School as a boy and his physique later in life emulated that of a man that at one point in his life had been in impeccable shape. Personal opinions about Kent are widely varied. For those that converge, charismatic, exceptionally bright, and larger-than-life are consistent adjectives, although just about everyone is familiar with other ones too – alcoholic, manipulative, narcissistic, possibly psychopathic, racist, sexual deviant – if folks hadn’t experienced these adjectives for themselves, they knew someone who did. What seems clear is that Kent had a knack for knowing what people needed, what pushed their buttons, and what they could tolerate, and he ran his division in a way that kept the people he liked around, and expelled the people that were a threat.

For those he did like, there were a lot of perks. You could dress casually, take off early to pick your kids up from school, or take half the day to go to the doctor. In return was an unspoken pact: if you cross me, if you call me on my shit, its over. You’re done. And getting fired by a Federal Judge was for many people, a career-ender. No one wanted to work with someone who was on the bad side of a Federal Judge because it would be a mark on an entire law firm. These facts created a sort-of Stockholm Syndrome effect, a well-documented psychological phenomenon where victims become emotionally attached to their abusers, even to the point of defending them. In return for flexible hours, a casual work environment, and inflated salaries, employees in the Galveston courthouse looked the other way on a lot of issues: 3-hour drinking lunches with Kent yelling expletives at little old ladies sitting at the next table, the institution of “Pajama Day” where employees were asked to come to work in their pajamas in order to watch High Noon and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid[1], and another “Story Day” where Kent read Rudyard Kipling stories to his staff as if they were kindergarteners, complete with character voices and inflections.

Few people maintained a balanced view of the Federal Judge and by the time he became Samuel Kent, defendant, many people hated him and of the few that still loved him, their loyalty sometimes seemed to be more of an insurance policy than true loyalty. Notorious for yelling at people in his courtroom, if you weren’t on the receiving end of the abuse, you could argue the recipient deserved it, and sometimes they did. But there was still a sense that whatever Kent was angry about was unrelated to what he was yelling about in court. The courtroom was just a protected forum to play out a backstory that few besides the receiver, Kent, and those in his confidence were aware. Some grudge, some slight, maybe even years old, that Kent had decided he was pissed about and couldn’t contain anymore. On one occasion, Kent sent a U.S. Marshall down to one Galveston attorney’s office to arrest him and bring him in handcuffs down to his chambers. The reason, albeit a completely inappropriate one, was because this attorney had lured and signed a client away from an attorney by the name of Richard Meloncon, one of Kent’s closest friends who practiced in his courtroom more than any other attorney at the time. To those not in the know, the randomness of it added to its effect on them. The perception was that Kent could write off, piss off, humiliate, and sanction anyone for any reason, and there was no recourse unless you were willing to risk your career for it.

Some people, including DeGuerin, speculated that Kent should have taken a leave of absence following the death of his wife, Mary Ann, in June of 2000, after a long illness that finally resulted in a terminal brain tumor. After 30 years of marriage, some say that this was when his drinking escalated and his behavior became more erratic. But even if his behavior escalated after her death, they were certainly present during her life and it is not likely that grief alone is to blame for trouble he got himself in over the following decade, despite Deguerin’s attempts to suggest otherwise during the sentencing phase of his legal battle. Kent had a tendency to pour gasoline on a fire when it came to his behavior. Every year at the 5th Circuit Judicial Conference – a very formal group of high ranking federal judges – Kent would show up in a pair of raggedy cut off blue jeans and a t-shirt, smoke cigars and affront people with lewd or awful comments. This, despite an ambition to one day be appointed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Shortly after his wife, Mary Ann’s death, a long time friend of Kent’s, Frank Spagnoletti, introduced him to Sarah Gerrish. She was the first woman Kent dated after he was widowed and he lost many friends over his decision to marry her on Valentine’s Day, only eight months after Mary Ann’s passing. Sarah often drank heavily herself and liked to regale everyone with tales of all the rock stars that she slept with in her previous life, often full of colorful, foul language. Kent himself would frequently disparage her to others in the office. Despite his characterizations and plenty of public displays of her own instability, there are still people that wonder if Sarah really was as crazy as Kent would portray her or if these were stories he told to create a picture of her as a volatile woman that couldn’t be trusted. That way, the credibility of anything she might say about him in the future could be easily disputed.

This gift seemed to serve him well when it came to his behavior towards women. There are multiple reports of women being groped and attacked by Kent, but often coupled with some plausibility of the idea that somehow the women themselves were to blame. His boisterous personality, not to mention his position of power, often gave him license to cross boundaries without the threat of consequences. Legal assistants would complain that Kent had groped them, but only after they had sat in his lap or entered his private chambers of their own free will. The conclusion of those around him was that he was a powerful, attractive, articulate man who had a knack for being light-hearted and unassuming when you could pierce his outer exterior. And women always seemed to be able to do that. In almost every report, he had convinced the woman to do one small thing that crossed the boundary first – consent to a hug, close the door, sit on his lap – something that suggested she was the one to open that door first.

A highly articulate man, Kent had a very sharp tongue in the courtroom and was known for writing colorful opinions in his judgments. At times, he would humorously poke at situations in his court, like when the Republic of Bolivia filed suit against Phillip Morris in an attempt to recoup millions of dollars in health care costs for treating illnesses its residents suffered as a result of tobacco use. The Republic filed the lawsuit in the Galveston Division, a choice Kent could only construe as a testament to his court and to himself in a presumably tongue and cheek manner. Kent wrote,

“The Court seriously doubts whether Brazoria County has ever seen a live Bolivian . . . even on the Discovery Channel.”; “[T]his humble Court by the sea is certainly flattered by what must be the worldwide renown of rural Texas courts for dispensing justice with unparalleled fairness and alacrity, apparently in common discussion even on the mountain peaks of Bolivia.”

Nevertheless, Kent passed on the opportunity to preside over the case, citing a heavy caseload[2] as well as “a significant personal situation which diminishes [his] ability to always give the attention it would like to all of its daunting docket obligations, despite genuinely heroic efforts to do so,” presumably referring to his first wife, Mary Ann’s illness. He continued to poke fun at himself and his court stating “there isn’t even a Bolivian restaurant anywhere near here!” and that because of the similarity in sound between “Brazoria,” the county in which Galveston is located, and “Bolivia” he had to confer with his law clerks to straighten out his confusion between the two.

At the same time, he also used his judgments as an opportunity to chastise attorneys who displeased him. In response to a request for summary judgment by the defendant, Kent wrote:

“Before proceeding further, the Court notes that this case involves two extremely likable lawyers, who have together delivered some of the most amateurish pleadings ever to cross the hallowed causeway into Galveston, an effort which leads the Court to surmise but one plausible explanation. Both attorneys have obviously entered into a secret pact – complete with hats, handshakes, and cryptic words – to draft their pleadings entirely in crayon on the back sides of gravy-stained paper place mats, in the hope that the Court would be so charmed by their child-like efforts that their utter dearth of legal authorities in their briefing would go unnoticed.”

In his conclusion, Kent writes in reference to the Plaintiff’s attorney, “the Court suggests that Plaintiff’s lovable counsel had best upgrade to a nice shiny No. 2 pencil or at least sharpen what’s left of the stubs of his crayons for what remains of his heart-stopping, spine-tingling action. In either care, the Court cautions Plaintiff’s counsel not to run with a sharpened writing utensil in hand – he could put his eye out.

It is clear from his judgments that Kent was a highly articulate judge, able to combine satire, irritation, and a firm grasp of the law in opinions that could be entertaining, if not biting to read. He enjoyed these sidebar remarks in the main text or in footnotes for no other reason sometimes than they brought attention to him and his personality. He enjoyed sharing what he wrote with his law clerk staff, “Oh get this. This is so fucking funny!” He wanted to be known as eccentric and bold, seemingly craving this kind of attention.

[1] Incidentally, no one wore their pajamas that day, but all sat in chambers and watched movies for the day

[2] “Over seven hundred cases and annual civil filings exceeding such number” was quoted in this opinion.