The voice vote approving the investigation of U.S. District Judge Sam Kent came after disagreement over the fact that he will draw his federal salary while he is in prison.
Kent was sentenced this week to nearly three years in prison for lying about the sexual assault of two female employees. He'll begin serving the sentence next month. Kent said he would retire on disability, meaning he'd draw his full salary and benefits for the rest of his life.
"Although Judge Kent is headed to prison, he remains a federal judge and continues to collect a salary unless he resigns or is impeached," said Democratic Rep. John Conyers, Judiciary Committee chairman.
Conyers and the committee's ranking Republican, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, want Kent to resign and give up his $169,300 annual salary.
The committee has been investigating another federal judge, Thomas Porteous of Louisiana, who is charged with presiding over a trial in which lawyers involved had given him money. He also is accused of filing for bankruptcy under a false name.
Their vote Wednesday allows the committee's task force investigating Porteous to also investigate Kent, a first step in the impeachment process.
The action reserves the committee's "exclusive right under the Constitution to impeach him if necessary," Smith said in a written statement.
Rep. James Sensenbrenner complained that putting the cases together would allow Kent to keep getting paid. The committee should act more swiftly against him than Porteous because he has pleaded guilty and been sentenced, Sensenbrenner said.
"Dealing with the Kent situation is a matter of urgency because if we delay he will be able to get away with drawing a full judicial salary while sitting in prison," Sensenbrenner said.
Judge Edith Jones of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering Kent's retirement. He has been removed from presiding over any criminal trials.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., cautioned the committee against acting too quickly because of Kent's claim that he may suffer from bipolar disorder. She said it shouldn't excuse his criminal behavior, but said is grounds for disability retirement.
"Mental illness is a real disease and I hope that the (committee's investigating) task force will consider whether or not that is in fact the case," Lofgren said.
The impeachment process can be long, requiring more votes on articles of impeachment and hearings. Eventually the Senate must weigh in.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he'd support any efforts to impeach Kent if he does not resign and cut off his salary.
"I certainly think he has disgraced his office and think he is an embarrassment to the judiciary. When you hold a position of trust like that, I think it is especially egregious to when people violate that trust like he did," said Cornyn, a former state district court judge and attorney general in Texas.
Slideshow archive | ABC13 wireless | Help solve crimes