Friday, September 05, 2008

Judge Indicted

Per Article III of the Constitution, federal judges "hold their offices during good behaviour," a term generally taken to mean that they have life tenure. Might there be a difference? That issue is raised by the indictment of U.S. District Judge Samuel Kent for, among other things he is alleged to have done to an office worker, trying to force her to perform oral sex on him. Yet, it appears that despite the grand jury's finding of probable cause to indict, Judge Kent will continue to hear cases while his trial proceeds. Rep. Sheila Jackson, who, like Judge Kent, is from Texas, and serves on the House Judiciary Committee, has said: "We want to proceed on the principle that you are innocent until proven guilty."

Presumably the action that Rep. Jackson and her colleagues are delaying is impeachment and removal. Remarkably, at least one federal judge, Walter Nixon, refused to resign his seat on the bench even AFTER having been convicted and sentenced to prison, leading to impeachment, removal, and a Supreme Court case.

One might argue that even if Judge Kent is ultimately acquitted on the ground that there is not proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he STILL could be removed for bad behaviour (British spelling in the Constitution!) if the House and Senate found him guilty by some lower standard, such as a preponderance of the evidence. Think of OJ Simpson being found civilly liable after his acquittal on criminal charges.

But putting that issue aside, what about cases being tried now? Rep. Jackson may be right that, on separation of powers grounds, Congress should not intervene---either in general via a statute or in specific cases via impeachment---to remove or even suspend an indicted-but-not-yet-convicted federal judge. However, the Judicial Conference or some other judicial body could certainly develop its own rules in the interest of protecting the appearance of impartial justice. A reasonable rule would be that, absent extraordinary circumstances, judges indicted for felonies should have their cases reassigned pending resolution of the charges.

On the merits, I should add that this is all quite a shame, as Judge Kent has authored some amusing decisions (e.g., this one) over the years.

Posted by Mike Dorf

9 comments:

Craig J. Albert said...

One pure-textual reading of the other impeachment clause -- Art III, Sec 2, cl.3 -- would suggest that the, in the case of crimes that are impeachable offenses, impeachment is the sole means of enforcement. ("The Trial of all Crimes, except in Cases of Impeachment, shall be by Jury . . . .") I don't believe that, but I wonder how the political landscape would change if either the Justice Department were either required to refer to the House accusations of crimes and misdemeanors involving officers and judges who are eligible for impeachment for concurrent prosecution, or the Justice Department did so as a matter of routine.

The practice has been for the Congress to await the outcome of the case tried by indictment, and then employ an abbreviated impeachment process in which the House impeaches on the basis of the criminal judgment, the Senate convenes a committee to hear and report, and the Senate then votes on the basis of the report. Sometimes there's an impeachment even in the face of a criminal acquittal, such as in the acquittal and impeachment of Judge (and now Representative) Alcee Hastings.

Rep. Jackson's "innocent-until-proven-guilty" argument seems simplistic to me, since even if Judge Kent were found not guilty in a criminal trial, he could still be impeached and removed from office. A better argument is that it would be a waste of Congressional resources to carry out an independent investigation and trial when the Justice Department is able to more efficiently shoulder the burder in a run-of-the-mill trial before a jury of 12. If the government and the defendant were to stick to the Speedy Trial Act deadlines, the trial could be held and concluded relatively quickly. Presumably the judge would need some time off to prepare his defense and participate in his trial, and that could be accomodated by an appropriate leave-of-absence policy for federal judges. I would also be concerned by an requirement of immediate resignation upon indictment because of the risk that indictments could be sought for political purposes. I would hate to see the Justice Department seek indictments of sitting federal judges of flimsy evidence, simply to remove them from office. It seems to me that, at most, a leave of absence would be more appropriate.

For an interesting review, see Maria Simon, Note, Bribery and Other Not So "Good Behavior": Criminal Prosectuion as a Supplement to Impeachment of Federal Judges, 94 Colum. L. Rev. 1617 (1994).

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