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The timing could hardly have been worse. A 19-judge committee of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals issued a reprimand recently to Galveston, Texas, U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent in a sexual harassment complaint and sent him home � with pay � for 120 days. The public order arrived just one day after a committee of Judicial Conference of the United States, the federal judiciary’s policymaking body, debated proposals to overhaul its secretive discipline system, and while Congress was considering the creation of an inspector general’s office to monitor judges. Under current rules, judicial discipline is a decentralized process of self-regulation within each circuit. Rules may vary among circuits. Generally, complaints are resolved at one of several stages, by the chief judge of the circuit, the circuit’s judicial council, a special investigative committee or ultimately by an appeal to the Judicial Conference. Proposed rules would nationalize the discipline process by standardizing the rules for all circuits and increasing the monitoring function of the national Judicial Conduct Committee of the Judicial Conference, and expanding its jurisdiction to review circuit council orders. Public comment on the draft closes on Oct. 15. The conference hopes to give final approval to discipline reforms at its next meeting in March 2008. “It does come at a kind of awkward moment,” said Arthur Hellman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law who testified before the Judicial Conference Committee on discipline reforms and has written extensively about the issue. “But it may help them in the long run because it may be the committee is carrying out its job with more scrutiny than expected,” he said. Closed process Little is known about discipline of federal judges, who serve for life and can only be removed by impeachment, because charges, investigations and outcomes remain confidential unless a rare public censure is ordered, as with Kent. National statistics, kept by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, show that 643 complaints were filed in 2006. Of the 619 complaints resolved, corrective action was taken by chief judges in just 11 cases. Another 380 were dismissed or withdrawn. Judicial councils, the next appeal level, resolved 228 complaints, dismissing all but eight. Those eight were sent to internal investigating committees of judges; seven came from the 2d Circuit stemming from a single matter. Only one complaint resulted in discipline in an 11th Circuit case. In Kent’s case, a complaint in May by a former case manager, Cathy McBroom, accused him of sexual harassment. In the order signed by 5th Circuit Chief Judge Edith Jones, the court issued a reprimand and admonished Kent with a four-month leave of absence from the bench between Sept. 1 and Jan. 1, 2008. The court reallocated his docket to other judges. The order also stated that “appropriate remedial action had been and will be taken,” but did not specify any other actions. It also made the order public on the court Web site, but did not disclose the specific allegations, Kent’s response or the investigation’s findings. Calls to Kent’s chambers were referred to 5th Circuit staff, which declined comment. Kent’s attorney, Maria Boyce of Baker Botts in Houston, did not return a call for comment. McBroom’s attorney, Rusty Hardin of Houston, said, “We expected more in discipline than we have heard so far. If that is all the 5th Circuit will do, then it is not over.” But he declined to discuss his next move. “It is premature to say what else she will do,” he added. ‘Thrown by results’ Hardin said they waited on the sidelines “with great respect for the judges doing the investigation,” but said he is “thrown by the results. “I have been a strong opponent of all the judge-bashing by politicians, so I am walking a tightrope here. I want to make sure what is done is fair to my client, but not join in the judge-bashing,” he said. “At the same time, I am a little thrown by a system with this kind of secrecy.” Hellman said the last appeal of the discipline order for both McBroom and Kent is to petition the Judicial Conference of the United States for review.

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