Ray Kent moves to other side of the bench as magistrate in U.S. Court for Western District

By Cynthia Price
Legal News

Referring to his time spent practicing at Sidley Austin in Chicago, Raymond S. Kent comments, “I eventually became convinced that representing Fortune 500 companies fighting over money was not going to keep me fully engaged over the long haul.”
The corporate world’s loss has been the public’s gain as Kent recently took the position of Magistrate Judge for the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan after serving for over ten years as the Federal Public Defender.

His October 29 investiture came about three months after his official appointment on August 1, filling the vacancy left by the retirement of Judge Hugh W. Brenneman.

Kent says about Brenneman, who served as Magistrate Judge for 35 years, “He’s so ingrained in the history of the Federal Court here in the Western District of Michigan. He was a founding member of the Federal Bar Association here, a founding member of the Historical Society, a founding member of American Inns of Court... everywhere you look you see his work.”

On Judge Brenneman’s retirement, then-Chief Judge Paul Maloney said in the Bar and Bench newsletter, “Judge Brenneman’s nearly 35 year career as a Magistrate Judge has exemplified the highest standards of legal scholarship, judicial temperament, sound judgment and discretion. In addition to his judicial responsibilities, Judge Brenneman has served the court on
numerous committees including,space and facilities, and district security... Please join me in congratulating Judge Brenneman on his years of truly distinguished service.”

“Fortunately, he’s still around.  He has a tremendous memory, and I hope he’ll let me take advantage of that,” Kent says, adding, “He spoke at my investiture; it was like a command per-

He explains that Brenneman took all three of the new magistrate’s names, Raymond and Scott and Kent, and searched for information about judges and other personnel in the Western District’s history who shared those names. “He’s very talented, he’s acted for Civic Theatre,” says Kent. “He wove their histories all together, and it was just amazing.”

Others who made remarks at the investiture included Hon. Robert J. Jonker, who became U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan Chief Judge shortly before Kent’s appointment; Hon. Robert Holmes Bell, a former Western District Chief Judge with whom Kent has worked over the years; and Sharon Turek, the Interim Federal Public Defender. Bryan Walters, the Varnum attorney who is President-Elect of the Federal Bar Association, served as master of ceremonies.

Kent too has been deeply involved with Federal Bar professional organizations, including serving in leadership roles for the Hillman Advocacy Program and the Combined Federal Campaign, “the world's largest and most successful annual workplace charity campaign,” and as president of the Federal Bar Association (2009) as well as of the Western District Historical Society.

Kent says, “I intend to remain active in both those organizations [the bar association and the historical society]. They certainly foster the great relationship that the lawyers in the Western District have always had with the court, which make this such a great place to practice law.”

After attending Michigan State University, while he was at Wayne State Law School thinking about where he would find employment — he had worked at insurance companies and thought he would apply to be an insurance attorney — he happened to put a resume in at Sidley and Austin. He was hired as a summer associate and then given a permanent position, during which he lived in Chicago.

He had not yet fully committed to leaving the firm when he got a call from a headhunter about a Grand Rapids opening at Dykema Gossett, so he called his Wayne State classmate Rob Buchanan to find out more. When Buchanan heard he was coming to Grand Rapids, he insisted that Kent interview with his father Jack, the well-known trial attorney. “Jack used his considerable powers of persuasion on me, and I worked at Buchanan and Bos for two and a half years until Jack and Carole Bos went their separate ways. Then I hung out a shingle and practiced solo for a decade, and I loved it.”

When the previous Federal Defender left his position, Kent was interested, but really did not think he would get the job. Then someone at the court told him he should get his resume in; it was not until 13 months later the appointment process was completed.

The Federal Public Defender’s office defends people accused of federal criminal offenses who are unable to afford a lawyer. whether through its own attorneys or through lawyers on the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) panel.

During his tenure there, Kent says, the office streamlined and strengthened the CJA panel. “It was [then-Chief] Judge Bell’s and my vision that an indigent defendant would get exactly the same defense as a rich one. We had a shared vision that the CJA panel would become a plum that lawyers would aspire to.

“When I started there were some people on the panel who were dead, some who had never had a federal case, and some who never wanted to. The Federal Defender’s Office took control of recommending who would be on the panel and took charge of training them in matters of federal criminal law and procedure. Over time we were able to put together a very strong panel.”

He adds that the “tremendous staff,” especially Lynn Holck and the aforementioned Sharon Turek, helped him accomplish the CJA panel overhaul as well as improvements to the way the office was managed and runs on a day-to-day basis.

Kent says that when he started, federal drug crimes were the most numerous types of cases they were called to defend, but when he left immigration cases had surpassed them.

His application for Magistrate Judge was also lengthy. He underwent review by a merit selection committee chaired by Craig Lubben of Miller Johnson, and then  interviewed with Western District judges and personnel.

While the Federal Public Defender is appointed by the Sixth Circuit Court, it is the judges of the Western District Court who appoint the magistrates. “I’d worked closely with all of them,” Kent says. “I assume that meant they had a good opinion of what I did as public defender, so that feels very good.”

At the time Kent’s appointment was finalized last July, Chief Judge Jonker said, “As my first official action as Chief Judge of the District, I am delighted to formalize the appointment of Magistrate Judge Ray Kent. We at the Court are pleased that a person of Ray Kent’s stature and accomplishment will become our newest Judicial Officer, and we know he will provide the same outstanding service to the people of this District that Magistrate Judge Brenneman has provided during his distinguished tenure.”

His main duty, Kent explains, is to assist the district court judges, appointed for lifetime tenure by the President, in the discharge of their duties.

He handles both criminal and civil cases, but adds, “There are statutory limitations on the authority of a magistrate judge. For example in a felony case I’m authorized to handle only the preliminary exam and the initial pretrial conference. I can’t preside over the trial on a felony charge, and am only able to on civil cases if both parties consent. Otherwise, I’m limited to handling only non-dispositive matters in a civil case.

“A lot of my time is spent handling preliminary matters, such as discovery disputes, pretrial conferences, or scheduling conferences.”

Looking back — and forward — Kent observes, “One of the most gratifying parts of being the Federal Defender was my ability to effect change for groups of people as opposed to one client at a time. Becoming the defender allowed me to focus exclusively on making sure the poor people in our community had access to the same defense as everyone else, and that was my mission for the last decade.

“Now I can help deliver the justice that I created access to in my role as the defender,” he continues. “It’s early in my role as judge to have a vision, but if I’m able to articulate one right now, that would be it.”