The judge presiding over the trial of United States District Judge Samuel Kent issued a broad gag order Friday, prohibiting court staff, lawyers and “all other witnesses expected to be called by either side” from giving out non-public information that could interfere with a fair trial.
Kent was indicted in August on charges of abusive sexual contact and attempted aggravated sexual abuse. He is the first federal judge to be indicted for federal sex crimes, and faces a maximum penalty of life in prison and a fine of $250,000.
His attorney has said that any sexual contact with the female subordinate was “enthusiastically consensual.”
The gag order was unusual in part because no party requested it. Issuing the order on his own motion, Senior United States District Judge Roger Vinson found that “the defendant, the alleged victim, and the prosecuting attorneys in this case have so far demonstrated a willingness to ‘try this case in the press’ and manipulate media coverage to gain favorable attention.”
Vinson described his order as an attempt at “balancing of First Amendment rights of speech and Sixth Amendment rights to a fair trial.”
The order has drawn criticism from legal experts and media organizations. Northwestern University School of Law professor Steven Lubet told the Houston Chronicle that he had never heard of a similar gag order and added that “when the defendant is a judge, the system needs to bend over backwards to stay open, not closed.”
Lisa Falkenberg, also writing in the Chronicle, noted that “Vinson’s order only exacerbates the perception that the guy in the black robe is getting special treatment. …. Of all trials, one involving a public servant charged with violating the very laws he was appointed to a lifetime bench to uphold should be conducted in the light of day.”