The Tyler Loop interview: Austin Reeve Jackson, candidate for 114th District Judge

With the  for the runoff for 114th District Judge coming up July 14 and early voting running June 29 to July 10, The Tyler Loop met for interviews with the two Republican candidates online. We wanted to hear about how the coronavirus has changed their campaign strategy, their response to police brutality and recent protests and where they see the greatest challenges in Smith County’s justice system.

Here, we talk to Austin Reeve Jackson, a Smith County attorney and founder of The Jackson Law Firm, practicing in administrative, public, criminal, juvenile and civil cases. Jackson is a lifelong resident of Smith County, having grown up in Lindale.

In the primary election, early voting returns reflected Jackson at 44.47% and Jarad Kent at 40.16%. The third finisher, Mitch Adams, received 15% of the votes. The Tyler Loop recently interviewed Jackson’s opponent, Kent, who is managing partner and founder of the Tyler office of Chamblee Ryan law firm where he practices business, health care, insurance, personal injury and construction cases.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. All photos are courtesy of Austin Reeve Jackson.

Any response you want to give to the protests that have been happening the past week, and how that might or might not affect you as a candidate?

Here in East Texas, not only have our protests been peaceful, but met with people like Sheriff Larry Smith and our police chief Jimmy Toler and other community leaders who are out there engaging in discussion. Whatever the issue, it’s far more productive for us to have those kinds of conversations than to be yelling at each other. I’m happy to see our local leadership and folks from these minority communities are getting together.

How has the coronavirus changed your campaign? How is your campaign addressing challenges to voting?

It’s always hard to remind people there’s going to be a runoff and to pay attention to it. Now, with people being told to stay at home and don’t go out into groups, it’s even more complicated.

We’re doing what we’ve done throughout this whole campaign, which is try to reach voters, whether it’s online or by phone, trying to keep that contact up. Having that grassroots network out there spreading our message has been invaluable.

What makes East Texas unique in its court cases, crimes and processes?

What makes East Texas unique and special is the people. We are able to have discussions that you can’t have in other places. We have a wonderful philanthropic community, an enormous number of nonprofits who do good work and who the community supports.

As far as our legal system goes, one of our biggest issues is jail overcrowding here in Smith County. Our jail is an enormous expense, and if you have zero experience with jail staff, jail operations with being inside the jail and meeting the people who work there, you’re not going to be ready. What we’re doing with our jail is one of our biggest issues, if not the biggest issue.

Earlier, I noticed you said we’re able to have discussions in East Texas that can’t be had in other places. Can you tell me more about what you were referring to?

Sure. I think the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee is a fantastic example. It’s something we’re doing here in Smith County that isn’t happening in a lot of other places. That organization was brought together by average citizens and elected officials, by Hispanics, by African Americans, by whites in the community. It has brought together mental health experts from the Andrews Center, folks from DPS, the sheriff’s office, Tyler PD, other local police departments around the county, commissioners and prosecutors.

I’ve had the privilege of representing the defense bar for a long time on that committee. We’ve talked about everything from race to bond issues to mental health. It doesn’t get a lot of publicity. The hard, quiet work isn’t flashy, but it’s important.

What are the greatest challenges the 114th district judge will face?

Mental health is a huge one, aside from the jail issue. Mental health relates to the jail because our county jail is our largest mental health institution in the county, and that’s not right. We should not be locking people up because they have mental illness. They shouldn’t be sitting in our county jail simply because we have no other place to put them that protects them and the public.

We also need to talk about mental health boards, where we take people who pick up repeat misdemeanor offenses like criminal trespass. Forgive the phrase, but they are sort of out of their mind. They suffer from mental illness, and they stumble onto Brookshire’s or a gas station property repeatedly, and they have to be removed.  

Jackson volunteering as soccer coach at Lindsey Park in Tyler.

You are unanimously endorsed by Grassroots America. What is your relationship to Grassroots America, and what does their endorsement say about you?

It says that I’m the constitutional candidate in the race, committed to upholding the Bill of Rights, our constitutional rights. I’m the only candidate who has fought the government on Fourth, First and Second Amendment issues.

That Grassroots endorsement says, ‘These are our values as an organization, and this is the candidate we think is best situated to upholding those values.’ Contrary to belief, Grassroots is not some monolithic organization. There is ethnic, income and experiential diversity, and it shows their broad base of support.

In your campaign video, you say, ‘For too long in this country, justice has been about who you know and how much money you have in your wallet, and it’s time to give control of our courthouse back to the citizens.’ What history and people are you referencing in that quote, and what does it look like by contrast when citizens are given control of the courthouse?

You can look at recent history and see that certain people have had their offenses swept under the rug because they happen to be with people in power. Folks are tired of that, tired of feeling like the courthouse is this small, insular group that only works for them and their folks. We’ve gotta get judges’ names off the courthouse doors. We’ve gotta get their pictures out of the courtroom. That courtroom belongs to the citizens of the county, not a particular judge. A judge holds that courtroom in trust, on behalf of the citizens.

When elected officials or powerful people are being investigated, our sheriff shouldn’t have to go to Gregg County to give warrants because nobody here will do it. I’m proud of the friendships and relationships among elected officials here in Smith County, but I believe the law should apply to them the same as anybody else.

How has your work with Lindale ISD Alumni Foundation Board, Historic Tyler and the Hispanic Business Alliance impacted and informed you about local needs and interests?

When you’re handing out Coats for Kids with PATH, when you’re delivering meals with Meals on Wheels, you’re having connections with these people, one-on-one connections. PATH in particular brings back people who have benefitted from their programs in the past, having them talk about where they are today and how they’ve gotten back on their feet. They’re back at PATH, not as customers but as volunteers. Keeping that cycle going keeps everyone in our community out of the hardships they are in. 

One of your highest priorities is ‘protecting children.’ How are East Texas children in particular at risk of being crime victims?

We, unfortunately, have the same problems most places do with the obvious crimes: injuries to a child, sexual assault, those kinds of serious offenses that are, sadly, everywhere. There are two other offenses that people don’t often think about. One is human trafficking. We’re having an increase in it here in East Texas, and I’m proud to be the only candidate who has worked on those cases. There are parts of this town where almost on a daily basis this is going on.

The other issue that’s a real tragedy with children is the increasing level of gang and cartel activity. For a long time, Tyler did a great job of addressing that problem head on; we saw it decline. But across the state and in Smith County, we are seeing an increase, and their target is children. If we don’t do a job of addressing the needs of these kids before the gangs do, that’s where they’re going to go. If we don’t address the human trafficking and gang problem, we’re gonna have a major, major crisis on our hands very quickly.

You say that you look ‘first to the Constitution and my Christian convictions’ to find moral and legal resolution. How might these two things — the U.S. Constitution and your Christian convictions — impact your decision-making processes as judge?

I know this county was founded on Judeo-Christian principles. It doesn’t mean that I’m opposed to freedom of religion or that I think you have to be a Christian to be an American. But I think if you’re going to get into the business of judging your fellow man, then you need a strong faith basis to do it. My faith informs the way I view the Constitution. No government can take [our divinely-endowed rights] away. This isn’t something the government has granted the citizens. It’s something the citizens have claimed themselves because of their divine right to what’s enumerated and codified in our constitution. 

On your webpage video, you mention that felony offenses are ‘cropping up more and more in our communities. It’s tough and can be frightening to live in a free society. If we’re gonna have a free society, we’re gonna have to have limited government.’ Help me understand how you unpack these words. Additionally, how does limited government resonate with you while we respond to COVID-19 in our world?

What you’re seeing with the government response to COVID is the natural end result of our administrative state, both on the federal and state level. Our Congress and our state Legislature have made a habit of delegating their responsibility to unelected administrative agencies in all areas.

With that comes a whole lot of increased power for the executive branch, and so you see Gov. Abbott being able to unilaterally shut down businesses without any response or input from the Legislature. You see him being able to mandate contract testing without any response or involvement from the Legislature. You see him picking winners or losers. Somehow Walmart can stay open but our local stores that sell clothes can’t.

Government in a crisis like this has an obligation and opportunity to provide citizens with the best, most timely information regarding COVID or any infectious disease. But then the government has to let individual citizens make decisions themselves. If you look at the data about social distancing and isolation, Texas was doing a better job of staying at home and social distancing when it was a recommendation than after it became a mandate.

People want to make their own decisions and not have the government act as their babysitter. When we’re given the right information and the opportunity to make our own decisions, we generally make the correct decision. I’m highly disturbed by what the government has done in its COVID response.

You say, “Everything I have accomplished is because of people here” in Tyler and East Texas. Which East Texas mentors and role models have impacted you the most meaningfully?

I’m going to pick a few from different stages in my life. I would say Dorothy Lee. If you’re unfamiliar with Dorothy Lee, I encourage you to look her up. She is a civil rights icon, not just in East Texas but in the nation. She happened to live here in Tyler. I had the opportunity to get to know her as a child, visit her in her home, sit at her feet and listen to her stories about coming through the civil rights movement. She was highly, highly influential.

In my young life, [there was also] Dr. Garrett, long time senior pastor at Marvin where I attend. [In] my high school days, I think of people like Janice Caldwell, long time debate teacher at Lindale. If I made a bad decision, she would call it out and then teach me how to make a better decision next time. She showed her students so much grace and love.

These days, I really admire people like Aaron Martínez and Fritz Hager who have taken some hits standing up publicly for what they think is right. I really admire JoAnn Fleming — I know that’s a controversial statement. I admire her tenacity and unwavering fidelity to what she believes is right.

As judges, I love our 12th Court of Appeals. Sam Griffith, Brian Hoyle, Jim Worthen, Greg Neeley — I think are not just four of the most impressive judges, they are four of the most impressive people.

In a three-generation Smith County attorneys spread, Jackson poses alongside his grandfather, Jack Jackson, and his father, Alan Reeve Jackson.

You say, ‘There is no place better to raise children than in Smith County.’ What are your reasons for believing that? Is that true for all Smith County families?

Of course, it’s easier for some Smith County families than others. But the opportunities you have here are great for all East Texas families. We have wonderful public schools systems: Lindale, Tyler, Whitehouse, Chapel Hill, Bullard. We [also] have a wide array of great, faith-based private education doing incredible work.

A school district like Chapel Hill which is educating a lot of minority students and doesn’t have as big a tax base as others, they are trying to do wonderful things with their resources and find new, creative ways to reach kids. You look at Tyler ISD, and some of our best elementary schools are in the north part of town, and I think that’s wonderful. You look at our high schools, and they are investing just as much in John Tyler as they are in Robert E. Lee, and that’s a credit to the community.

Jackson at his daughter’s baptism at Marvin United Methodist Church in Tyler.

Also, the faith community is wonderful. People joke that when you move to Tyler, the first question you get asked is, “What church do you go to?” It underscores that this community values something bigger than itself. 

You talk about how most of us will know someone who is a crime victim, even if it doesn’t happen to us personally. How might you extend a response and an appeal for votes to East Texas residents whose family members are the ones who have committed crimes? What is the best outcome for family members who have a child or parent who faces a long-term sentence?

There are no winners and losers in the criminal justice system. Nobody walks out of it unscathed. One of the hardest things to see is a mother or father look at their child and know they’re never going to see them again in the free world, never going to get the chance to hug and hold them again. People on all sides of this are children of God and have inherent with them a value that doesn’t come from us, and what they did or didn’t do, it comes from their creator.

I know what it is to see family members criticized and called out by somebody sitting up on a bench, as though they made their child grow up and commit a crime. I’m not gonna engage in that behavior because it’s not right.

What are some of the ways that you are making people care that set you apart from your opponent? 

The best example is to lead by example. My commitment to community service, this is something I’ve done since I was a child. Having that history and that record is a huge differing point. I’m not asking for the community to believe that I’ll stay humble and serve you once you elect me. I’m asking to look at my record of service and humility and say that this is somebody who really will continue what he’s already started.

You also say you want to ‘decrease taxpayer burden by decreasing jail and court operation costs.’ Where would you want to see funds cut to create tax decreases to jail and court operations?

That’s an easy question to answer. If you reduce the number of people in jail, you would create a significant taxpayer savings there. We average $70 to $90 a day to house every individual inmate. Our cases here in Smith County take longer to get resolved than they should.

If you look at our court’s budget, we’re some of the only people in the world who still pay for a fax machine. Nobody faxes anything, but we pay for a fax machine. We pay for a giant copier when we’re in a paperless courthouse where everything is electronically filed. There are enormous cost saving measures we can put into place.

I’m also committed to decreasing my salary by $10,000 on the first day I am elected. The salary for a district judge is set by the state legislature in Austin, at a little over $140,000 a year. It’s more than sufficient for a job a judge does. Our local county supplements that with an additional $10,000 payment to our judges every year. If every judge did what I would do and return that $10,000, that’s an enormous cost savings.

How do you interpret your quote, above, as our local jails have become coronavirus hotspots?

COVID obviously is a huge expense and taking care of anybody with that illness is going to be expensive. But if we’ve done our job and reduced the jail population preemptively by moving cases more quickly, then we have extra money there to shift towards medical expenses when they arise.

If your legacy included creating change in Smith County, what would you want that change to be?

I would want Smith County to become a destination job for anybody in the legal community, whether you’re a civil or criminal attorney, prosector, probation officer or law enforcement officer. That happens when judges show respect for all parties involved, when law enforcement has complete faith in the decision making abilities of that judge, when citizens who are accused of crimes or have loved ones who are accused of crime know that they’re going to get a fair day before that judge, when prosecutors know they’re not gonna have to create or give over insurmountable burden to the judge because of political ends.

I hope my legacy would be that I’m forgotten, that my name doesn’t appear anywhere on the courthouse or in the history books. That’s the legacy I want: to be forgotten and to leave the world a little better off. In my all-time favorite poems is the one about, ‘He lived in a house by the side of the road and was a friend of man,’ and I think about that a lot.

Tyler is now a majority-minority city, thanks to exponential growth in our Hispanic populations over the past 40 years. By the 2030s, Smith County will also be majority-minority. I noticed that the five-minute video on your webpage featured all white people. How might our city and county demographic impact the court cases you judge? How is your campaign reaching out to our brown and black populations?

As far as only being white people in the video, I didn’t know that. I haven’t seen the video in a while, but I’m sure you’re correct. That video was something we shot in a single morning, and we asked folks who were available to show up and help us out, and we took who was available.

Frankly, I wasn’t worried about trying to recruit people who looked a certain way to use as props in my campaign because I’ve been a presence in their community. I’ve got a record of being an active participant in minority communities here in East Texas, and I think that speaks far more than any video would.

I like to tell people when they ask about my education, ‘The first college I ever went to was Texas College,’ a minority school right here in East Texas, North Tyler. I grew up with people like Dorothy Lee there attending lectures and learning there on that campus.

I served on the Hispanic Business Alliance board here, and I’m proud to have a whole lot of Hispanic business owners supporting me, not because they saw somebody in the video who looks like them but because they’ve seen me working with them side by side to build their business. I’ve participated in park cleanups in minority areas here in town, and I’ve taken my kids with me to do that. 

Every person who lives in Smith County is our neighbor, regardless of their income, their race, what part of town they live in. I’m the only candidate that has worshipped in and preaches in minority-led churches. That gets to the reason I don’t have to cover my website with pretty pictures or specifically targeted to certain groups, is because I’ve got the record to run on. I’ll take a record of action in a community over a video or a pretty picture any day.

When you imagine sitting on the bench and listening to the most weighty cases in East Texas, who are the faces and incidences that come to mind?

Jackson spends time reading to his daughters.

Children. I don’t think that as a judge you hear any crime more important than a crime against a child and specifically, sexually assault of a child. I’ve worked as a prosecutor and defense attorney. I’ve had the awful, awful experience of being the first person to whom a child discloses sexual abuse.

You see it far too often in the juvenile system, where a kid gets arrested for a minor offense, behavioral-related, and it turns out they are acting out because of the abuse that’s going on in the home. The first person they tell is some lawyer who doesn’t look like them, who doesn’t look like anybody they should know or trust, but they have that breakdown moment.

I’ve taken those kids to hospitals where they had examinations. I’ve sat down and had them interviewed by law enforcement and seen the necessary but invasive, gut-wrenching process that is. These kids carry the weight of these offenses where they’ve been victims for the rest of their lives.

Last question: If you had to pick one thing for people to know about you, what would it be?

I’ve got the greatest two kids in the world. When we were asked to get involved in this campaign, a lot of people cautioned us and said, “Well, you know, there’s real risk here that it’s gonna get dirty, and you’re gonna be attacked in ways you don’t like.” I thought about it. So long as at the end of every day I come home and those two little girls come running up to me with their arms wide open, that’s it, I’m good.

I want to win this race, I want to serve this community, I want to get every single vote in Smith County. But if I lose this race, and I have the love of my kids, I’m gonna be all right.

I also want people to know this race really is about service. It’s a continuation of a pattern of service. I would hope that if you look at me, and even if you don’t vote for me, if you admire the fact that I’m going to run because of a commitment to community service, maybe it inspires you.

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