Perversion of Justice

As the most powerful jurist in Galveston, Judge Samuel Kent intimidated everyone: the lawyers who argued cases before him, the defendants and plaintiffs who appeared in his courtroom—and the female courthouse employees he groped, kissed, and forced himself on when no one was looking. Imperious, charismatic, and seemingly above the law, he almost got away with it. Until one woman decided to fight back.
Perversion Of Justice
Illustration by Steven Tabbutt

When Cathy McBroom stepped into the judge’s chambers in the summer of 2002, she thought her heart was going to stop. She had been told the judge was a big man, but she’d had no idea just how big until he started rising from behind his desk. He was six feet four and at least 260 pounds—“literally larger than life,” she’d later tell her best friend, shaking her head in wonder. Dressed casually in khakis, a button-down white shirt, and a sports coat, he took off his glasses, gave her a broad grin, and in a booming baritone said, “Cathy, I’m Judge Kent. Welcome to Galveston. Have a seat.”

Cathy, a 44-year-old mother of three, tried to keep her breath steady as she glanced around the room. It looked like a movie set, with lofty ceilings and the U.S. and Texas flags hanging behind the judge’s desk. Shelves of law books lined one wall, and on a credenza was a photo of the judge standing with President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara. Spread across the floor was a giant rug emblazoned with the image of an eagle, the federal seal. Through six-foot-high windows, Cathy could see ships making their way across the Gulf of Mexico.

Now, Cathy, are you sure you’re ready to take on this job?” the judge asked, sinking back into his leather chair and throwing his legs over the top of his desk, resting one huge shoe on top of the other. A few days earlier, she had received word that he was looking for a new case manager to oversee his docket and schedule his day in the courtroom. Cathy’s résumé had impressed him. Since graduating from Channelview High School, near Houston, in 1976, she had worked mostly for law firms, first as a receptionist and then as a legal secretary. In 1999 she had been picked from more than one hundred applicants to be a judicial assistant at Houston’s federal courthouse. When she had heard about the open position in Galveston, she told her husband, a shift worker at a chemical plant, that this was her moment—a chance to make more than $70,000 a year and start a nest egg for the family.

The judge cocked his head as he appraised her. Blue-eyed and brunette, Cathy was attractive, a trim woman who ran marathons with a Houston-area running club. But that afternoon, she was hardly flaunting her looks. She was dressed in a navy skirt that fell just below the knees, a matching navy jacket that buttoned up the front, and low-heeled pumps. Despite the summer heat, she was also wearing stockings to give herself a more businesslike appearance. She tried not to blush as she said, “Sir, I know I would do a good job for you.”

The judge nodded, and after a few more minutes of conversation, he stood up to shake her hand. “Cathy, I think you’re really going to enjoy working here,” he said.

He was right. As the first weeks turned to months, Cathy thrived in her new job. She arrived at the courthouse each day as soon as it opened, often skipping lunch to stay on top of all the hearings. In the courtroom, she sat at a desk just below the judge’s vast bench, where she assisted in selecting jury panels, assembled the judge’s written directives, and passed his orders to the attorneys. She couldn’t be happier, she told her friends and family. She loved watching him swagger into the courtroom, she said, the bottom of his great black robe flapping behind him like the tail of a kite. She loved the way jurors stared at him, awestruck, when he welcomed them to his courtroom and declared them “the real judges of the facts.” It was amazing, Cathy added, how even the $500-an-hour attorneys spoke to him reverentially.

Almost exactly one year after she’d taken the job, on a Friday afternoon in August 2003, Cathy was walking down the hall when she saw the judge, who had just stepped out of his private elevator. She snapped to attention. He was returning from a long lunch with friends, and as usual a courthouse security officer was accompanying him to his chambers. The judge saw Cathy and waved at her. “I hear there’s a new exercise room somewhere around here,” he said. “Want to show it to me?”

It’s right here,” said Cathy, opening the door to a small room that had recently been equipped with a weight bench and some free weights. It was barely ten feet from the command center where the security officers worked, and she quickly led the way in. Suddenly, before she could utter a cry, the judge grabbed her, holding her head with one hand and lifting her up to crush her mouth against his. With his other hand he yanked up her blouse and bra, then tried to force his way into her skirt, tearing at her panty hose.

Somehow, Cathy broke away and backed across the room, so panicked she could barely speak. “Judge, what are you doing?” she finally gasped. But he kept coming, grabbing at her again, forcing his tongue down her throat, his breath smelling like cigars and alcohol.

Tell me you want me,” he murmured. “Tell me you want me.”

Judge, please! The officers are right outside! They’re going to hear you.”

For a moment, the judge looked at her, a grin spreading on his face. “Do you think I give a f— what they hear?” he asked. “Do you really think I care?”

Until earlier this year, when he became known as the “sex judge”—the first federal justice ever to be indicted for sex crimes—59-year-old Samuel Barstow Kent was the most powerful person in Galveston, a figure of such magisterial authority that citizens called him King Kent. He was the federal district judge for Galveston and its surrounding counties, not only handling all the civil lawsuits filed with the U.S. district clerk at the city’s downtown federal building but also presiding over

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