The Tyler Loop interview: Jarad Kent, 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 Jarad Kent, 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. Kent grew up in Tyler, attending St. Gregory Cathedral and Bishop T.K. Gorman Catholic schools. He has served on numerous boards with both schools, as well as Children’s Miracle Network. Since the coronavirus pandemic, he has volunteered at the East Texas Food Bank.

In the primary election, early voting returns reflected Kent’s opponent, Austin Reeve Jackson, at 44.47% votes and Kent at 40.16% The third finisher, Mitch Adams, received 15% of the votes. The Tyler Loop recently interviewed Jackson who is a Smith County attorney and founder of The Jackson Law Firm, practicing in administrative, public, criminal, juvenile and civil cases.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. All photos are courtesy of Jarad Kent.

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

It is a situation that has turned not only the campaign and my life completely on end. We went from going at 110 mph, hardly seeing the family and having a meal with them, to coming back after the election and a complete 180. It has presented a unique set of challenges to me professionally with my job but also with the campaign. It’s been a lot of getting on the phone and calling people and social media playing a bigger role in the campaign. Also, I have had the opportunity to pitch in at the East Texas Food Bank and help put meals together.

The pandemic put a lot on hold. In March, April and May, folks just weren’t as interested in focusing in on a judge’s race. They were concerned about how they’re going to pay for groceries and make rent.

You can really get down into the nitty gritty aspects. What are the numbers looking like? How do you need to raise the money that’s necessary to effectuate the campaign — all of the details. [The pandemic] gave me the opportunity to sit back, reflect on what’s important in my life and reconnect with that decision I made back in July of last year to get involved in this race.

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

We’re certainly a growing community. On the criminal side, we’re going to have the cases and offenses that go with a growing community. You’re going to have property crimes just by virtue of our geography, where we’re situated along the interstate. We’re going to have drug trafficking and narcotics crimes. Poverty’s a real issue in East Texas, so unfortunately when you’ve got the rate of poverty we have, you’re  going to have the crime that sadly goes with that. It’s not entirely unique to East Texas. You see that elsewhere, but certainly that’s the picture that we’ve got in East Texas.

On the civil side, we’re a medical hub. We’ve got the facilities, the doctors and the practices here locally that the entire region looks to for their healthcare needs. Knowing that East Texas is a hub of healthcare in this region, you’re going to see more of those cases, particularly what we’ve seen with the coronavirus and the challenges that presents to our healthcare providers.

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

The greatest challenge any judge faces is instilling in the community a sense of fairness and justice, that you as a judge are not dictating the outcome of a particular case but are instilling a sense of confidence in the system — making decisions, knowing they will have an effect on people’s lives one way or the other. In a way, that instills a respect for that decision, regardless of whether you ruled for or against them, that ultimately, the decision you made was one you felt you were required to make by the laws and by the facts.

We’ve got a very diverse community here [in Smith County], and as our community continues to grow, it’s going to become more and more diverse. I think we’ve got a strong history of being very supportive of law enforcement and being a strong law and order community. The challenges are presenting a sense that this is a fair system, and it’s not a perfect system.

As I frequently say when I am arguing to juries, ‘Our system of justice is the worst system in the world, except for every other system out there.’ It’s not perfect by any means, but that’s where the role of the judge is to come in and say, ‘I’m going to try to instill a sense of fairness and equality in that process by being someone who applies the law.’ The legislative fights, those are fought in the legislature. A judge is there to follow the law that the legislature gives them. Judges don’t make the law, they apply the law.

Your webpage includes a video where you talk about your values of “faith, family and freedom.” Can you explain how those values are reflected in your work as an attorney and a prospective judge?

I was raised Catholic here in Smith County. We’re in the heart of the Bible Belt. I’m certain that my mom was one of the early Catholics elected to office here in Smith County. I went to the Catholic University of America here in Washington, D.C., where I met my wife. Our Catholic faith is a big part of who we are and how we are raising our kids. Our freedoms that we have locally and that we enjoy so strongly — these are the values of being able to practice our faith, to speak freely, to exercise our constitutional rights. Those are the values I was raised respecting and that I hope to pass along to my children as I raise them.

Kent poses with his wife and two daughters.

How has having parents as attorneys formed your life and work?

Immensely is the short answer. I can’t emphasize enough how well respected my dad is in the legal community, not only locally but across the state as a trial attorney. I saw that early on in my practice. A lot of other lawyers would come to me and tell me what an incredible attorney he was, not just as an advocate for his clients but just as a person — someone who was willing to do the right thing, whether it was the popular thing or not. That same attitude was reinforced from my mom in the public sector. When she took over as judge, the docket was incredibly backlogged in the 114th. She did the work necessary to get that docket back under control.

Your mother, Cynthia Kent, was judge from 1989-2009. What do you remember knowing about her role as her child during those years?

At an early age, I remember the hours I would play in the courtroom as she was working. We’d have Cub Scout meetings in the courtroom growing up. It’s certainly a courthouse I grew up around. I was able to see the hard work that she put in, the long hours, the countless times she would give a speech. She often volunteered for a lot of these roles.

Your webpage says you will “fairly apply the law as written and not write law from the bench.” What do you have in mind there? Can you give an example of both?

When a judge steps in and says, ‘I understand what the law is, but I’m going to do it my way,’ they are in essence imposing their own will as a judge over the will of the people that have elected the legislators to represent them. The laws the legislators say govern our proceedings in court — those are the laws that I’m going to be guided by, along with our Constitution and federal laws.

You have grown up in Tyler, attending Gorman in middle and high school. How did your Gorman education serve and inform you? 

Having that faith education was invaluable. Learning values is as important to a young student as learning math and science. Coming back home, I was immediately asked to serve on the long-term strategic planning community, the alumni committee, then a stint on the advisory board at Gorman, and right now, I’m serving on the finance committee at St. Gregory’s. 

On your webpage, you mention your facial scars, calling them “your story.” Can you tell me the story behind your facial scars and how having them has impacted you?

Kent during his high school football days at Bishop T.K. Gorman Catholic School.

On my campaign webpage, we recently posted a picture of me in my football uniform at T.K. Gorman. You’ll notice my nose I was born with. Growing up, they always thought it was a birthmark. In third grade, they treated it with lasers, and I ended up having seizures over a number of months because you don’t treat the vascular condition I was ultimately diagnosed with, with lasers. It’s very dangerous. Finally, going into my senior year of high school, I was diagnosed with this vascular condition that required surgery to remove it. It was over a dozen surgeries over a two-year period. The pain was incredible. I actually finished my Eagle Scout project proposal from my hospital bed after surgery. That incredible sense of accomplishment you have when you overcome a challenge you face, that was my story.

Again, it’s about viewing challenges as opportunities. Those are the values I’m trying to pass along to my own daughter, Anna. She was diagnosed at six months with a congenital heart defect that required open heart surgery. She doesn’t remember that now. She’s six years old now, but she still has the scar from her surgery. One of the things I talk with her about is, “That’s the challenge you have already overcome at such a young age. You’re going to face more challenges in life.”

Kent, along with his family and pet.

J.B. Smith endorses you, calling you “a true conservative.” Do you feel that describes you well? What does it mean to be a true conservative?

It absolutely describes me. I was raised as a conservative Republican my whole life. It was never forced on me. I was free to argue and explore and test the values, but those are the values that ultimately I embraced as mine. For me, when I say conservative, I don’t mean that as a negative toward liberals. I believe we’ve got values that are inherent in our government that are reflected in our constitution — freedom, being guided by our faith, our family — and that’s what being a conservative means.

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

I try to not so much focus on my opponent. What I try to do through my campaign is show I’ve got the character and the integrity that I think are the primary important qualities that you want in a judge, somebody that’s going to be square with you, that’s going to be upfront with everybody that comes in front of the court. I hope that I can convince the voters in Smith County to trust me to be the judge.

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 two-minute 22 second video on your webpage featured all white people. How might our city and county demographic be reflected in your court cases? How is your campaign reaching out to our brown and black populations?

I would offer one change. I don’t know if it was that video or an advertisement video that we did down the line, but I had the Rev. Jerome Milton in my video. Putting those videos together, you’re trying to fit a snapshot into a minute or two, so it’s a little bit tough. This is my first time doing this political process, so I’m learning as I go, but absolutely, I’ve had meetings throughout this campaign to help engage the minority community, folks like Stanley Cofer and Alejandro Gauna who are founders of the Texas Minority Coalition here in Smith County.

It’s a tough process, there’s a lot of barriers recognizing that I’m a white male, there’s a lot of barriers that you have to break to get in and engage that community, but it’s something I’m committed to continuing to work for. As a judge, one of the things you’re called to do is instill a sense of fairness in that system, and justice has to be blind. It not always is, sadly, but it has to be blind. As district judge of the 114th, my decisions are going to be guided by the law and the facts of the case, not by the color of somebody’s skin.

You are endorsed by the East Texas Regional Fraternal Order of Police. What is your relationship to the order, and what does their endorsement say about you?

I sat down with the East Texas Regional Fraternal Order of Police that represents law enforcement officers both here and Smith County and all over East Texas. They came back and decided that they were going to support me. That says that law enforcement locally, the ones that I know, I consider dear, dear friends of mine. We hear a lot of negativity about law enforcement when we’re watching the news, and that’s not the experience I’ve seen locally.

I’ve seen law enforcement officers raising thousands and thousands of dollars for Christmas gift drives, for food. I’ve seen with my own eyes law enforcement officers buying somebody lunch as opposed to taking them to jail, somebody that says, “You don’t really need to be in our jail, you need somebody to sit down and talk with and have lunch with.”

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

I can’t help but to think back to some of the cases I’ve got, clients I’ve represented over the years. [These include] doctors who have their practice literally on the line and have the uncertainty of whether they are going to practice medicine down the line and folks that have been very seriously hurt, looking to our court system for a way to begin to fix their lives.

Our courts here in Texas are open for business. Don’t take those disputes out in the streets. Bring those disputes into the court system. That’s where they are meant to be heard.

When you mentioned taking things to the courts instead of the streets, is that an allusion to the protests against police brutality that have been happening the past few days?

I’m saddened by that, saddened by the loss of life and Mr. Floyd’s life, all of the people who have lost their lives or been injured in this tragedy that we’ve got playing out in front of us. That’s why we have courts to handle our disputes in a way that gets those disputes heard and protects the rights of people as they go through that process. My statement wasn’t in direct reference, but it certainly has relevance to what’s going on nationally and in the state, for sure. 

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

I think it would be a renewed sense of respect for our justice system. I would love for that to be a legacy of mine, for people to say, “He made it his point throughout his entire career to ensure that there was a respect for the system.” The only way to get that respect is by being fair at all times, being patient, having that personal integrity and listening to people. That’s the most important thing you can do as a judge, to listen.

You mentioned that our country’s justice system is the best among the worst. If you imagined that system having fewer holes, what would that look like or where would you begin?

It starts with the people involved in the process. I can’t control everybody else, I can control myself. Everybody that’s involved in our justice system — criminal and civil — everybody from law enforcement to lawyers have to have personal responsibility for being respectful of the system and not making it a system about winning or losing. It’s not about winning or losing. The system is about ensuring that our disputes are heard in a fair, unbiased way, that the evidence is presented by the attorneys clearly. To affect change is to have the people inside the system looking inside themselves and recognizing that the most effective way they can change the system is by changing themselves.

If you’ve got a judge that makes the right decision, and they know going in that it’s right, but they don’t take the time to listen to both sides, they haven’t done the system justice because they haven’t listened.

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

First and foremost, I want people to know my favorite job is as a father and husband. I’ve got a wonderful, beautiful family that I love so dearly, and if there’s one thing that people could know about me, it’s how much I love my family that I’ve got. A campaign is an incredibly daunting task, and I couldn’t have done it without my wife standing with me, my kids being there with me, my parents, brothers, father and mother-in-law, my whole family. I want folks to know that I’ve got that support system behind me, and I feel their prayers as well.

You mentioned that you’re learning as you go during this campaign. Is there anything you have in your toolkit because of this experience?

It’s easy to get caught up in the back and forth and the exchange with your opponent, what somebody else is saying about you. One of the things I’ve learned is to tell people about who you are. Don’t worry about what your opponent is telling people about who you are. Just go out there and tell them, and folks will get that. They will understand.

Kent with his dog, Bella.

Does the July runoff project a higher voter turnout than usual?

Traditionally, you have a body of data you can look at from one election cycle to the next. There’s a  lot of unknowns with what we’re dealing with in our country and what that’s going to translate to voter turnout. I hope that everybody turns out and lets their vote be heard. I don’t think anybody involved in politics wants to get elected by a small voter turnout. You always want to get elected by overwhelming support, overwhelming turnout.

I’m confident with the officials locally and at the state level with their ability to have a system in place to ensure safety. Having a week of early voting was a good decision. There is every opportunity to get out and vote and do so safely. This is an important race here locally for our community. You need to show up and vote.

Is there anything else important for you to say?

I would use the opportunity to thank everybody that has prayed for me, has helped out with the campaign, has supported me. I feel those prayers, I feel that support. Let’s keep that momentum up. Let’s get all the way through July 14, and we’re going to win this thing.

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Jane Neal is the executive director of The Tyler Loop and storytelling director of Out of the Loop: True Stories about Tyler and East Texas. In addition to the Loop, she works at the Literacy Council of Tyler and attends Sam Houston State University remotely, where she studies sociology. Jane is a certified interfaith spiritual guide. She is a member of Leadership Tyler Class 33 and a former teacher of French at Robert E. Lee High School, where she ran a storytelling program called Senior Stories. Jane and her husband Don have four children.