Jumping into what already has become a cramped Republican primary field, Waco attorney Susan Kelly formally announced Tuesday that she is entering the race for judge of 19th State District Court.

Kelly, 57, announced her plans to succeed Judge Ralph Strother before a large crowd on the steps of the McLennan County Courthouse, where Kelly worked as an assistant district attorney and a staff attorney for the 10th Court of Appeals before going into private practice 21 years ago.

As she spoke, Kelly held a plastic bag containing two old courthouse keys. She was given them when she worked for the intermediate appellate court, and she joked no one ever asked for them back when she left. She said she hopes the voters will put the keys to the courthouse back in her hands.

“It would give me great honor to be given the opportunity, at least metaphorically, to have the keys to the courthouse again, and I will have a dedication and devotion to justice like you may not know, because that is the most important thing to me in life,” Kelly said.

Kelly spoke reverently of Strother and his predecessor, longtime Judge Bill Logue, and talked of lessons learned from them and other judges, including former 10th Court justices Frank McDonald, Bob Thomas, Vic Hall, Bill Vance and Terry Means.

“Those are enormous shoes to fill, but I promise you if I have the chance to do that, you may disagree with me, probably people will regularly as there are always two sides, but I won’t go to bed at night without knowing that I tried to do the right thing under the law,” she said.

‘In the arena’

Kelly read what is known as the 1910 arena speech by Theodore Roosevelt, which says, in part, “It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

With a goal of “justice for all,” Kelly said her experience on the appellate level, as a prosecutor and as a defense attorney make her the uniquely qualified candidate.

“I don’t know why I have a fundamental sense of fairness,” she said. “I may not have sense for a lot of other things, but I know when something is not fair. And you put that with my 33 years of experience, and I think that makes me qualified as judge of the 19th District Court.”

As a McLennan County prosecutor from 1992 to 1998, Kelly handled felony cases and was named the State Arson Prosecutor of the Year. She said she also received state recognition for her work handling child injury cases.

Strother’s court is one of two courts in the county that preside primarily over felony cases. Kelly, who is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, said she “brings to the table vast experience in criminal law and real courtroom experience.”

While in private practice, Kelly said she has devoted herself to her clients in a variety of areas. She also has been appointed special prosecutor in other counties when other prosecutors were recused from handling cases.

Other candidates

Kelly, a Baylor University Law School graduate, is president of the Waco-McLennan County Bar Association. She will be joined in the judicial race in the March 2020 Republican primary by Waco attorney Thomas West, 54, a former prosecutor who formally announced his candidacy in April, and Waco Assistant City Attorney Kristi DeCluitt, 48, a former prosecutor and a former justice of the peace, who has said she will make a formal announcement later.

Strother, judge of 19th State District Court for 20 years, will retire at the end of his term in December 2020.

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