Four attorneys seeking to be the next judge of Waco’s 19th State District Court say they want to continue their public service by modernizing courtroom technology and aggressively tackling a case backlog to decrease the jail population and case disposition time.
Kristi DeCluitt, Michael Flynn, Susan Kelly and Thomas West will square off in the March 3 Republican primary to succeed the retiring Judge Ralph Strother in one of McLennan County’s two felony courts.
Strother, appointed to the bench in 1999 by former Gov. George W. Bush, will be 77 when he retires at the end of this year. Mandatory retirement age for state district judges is 75, but the law allowed Strother to complete his four-year term.
At the end of the most recent campaign finance reporting period last week, West held a slight fundraising edge over Kelly and also led the four candidates in campaign spending.
West, 55, a former prosecutor who has been a criminal defense attorney for the past 19 years with the Dunnam & Dunnam law firm, collected $44,877.23 in contributions while spending $37,997,15.
Kelly, 58, also a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor, reported $43,756.61 in campaign contributions and $32,580.69 in expenditures, while DeCluitt, 49, a former McLennan County justice of the peace, listed $39,518 in contributions and $11,737.70 in expenditures.
Flynn, 59, a retired Army lieutenant colonel in the service 34 years, reported $715 in contributions while listing $14,218.56 in expenditures, including $13,503.56 of his own money.
West worked as a felony prosecutor and misdemeanor chief in the McLennan County District Attorney’s Office and has served as the municipal court prosecutor in Lorena since 2001. He also has been associate city judge in Hewitt for two years and said he has received 32 hours of current judicial training since 2018.
West is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and said he has participated in more than 120 jury trials. He is a deacon at First Baptist Church of Woodway and an advisory board member of The Salvation Army.
“The true characteristics of a judge begin with education, followed by trial experience, the appropriate judicial temperament, courage and integrity, suitability to the workload, all wrapped up in community service,” West said. “I believe a judge is a servant to the citizens of McLennan County and therefore responsible for the protection and defense of both the U.S. and Texas constitutions and rule of law. Experience is important, but it’s the right experience that makes the difference.”
Calling himself “battle tested,” West said he has the experience to “make split-second decisions in trial under fire correctly so a guilty person doesn’t go free on the streets.”
“I have a unique combination of knowledge of the law and extensive practical experience in multiple legal contests which sets me apart from the other candidates,” West said. “I have the right experience to make a difference in the efficiency of the courtroom, ensuring a fair trial for all parties and to eliminate the backlog of cases to save McLennan County citizens’ tax dollars.”
West proposes to modernize the court systems by digitizing the process to create a paperless system.
“Technology is at the door of the courtroom right now and it needs to come in,” he said.
Kelly, a defense attorney and former award-winning prosecutor, also served as staff attorney on Waco’s 10th Court of Appeals. She also is certified in criminal law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. She said her unique experience in various phases of the criminal justice system makes her candidacy stand apart.
“My opponents might be fine people, attorneys and Republicans, and I believe I am all that, too, but much more,” Kelly said. “The 19th District Court is dedicated to the most serious cases in our county. So my experience and my training, which includes thousands of state cases, prosecutions, defense work and, specifically, at the appellate level, gives me the experience and leadership to go in and command that courtroom in the most serious of cases.”
Kelly said her work as a former appellate court staff attorney will help her traverse the legal minefields that frequently lead to case reversals based on judge’s errors.
“When you go in and try a two-week felony case and you don’t handle the issues properly and it gets appealed to that very court I worked at, that case is coming back if there is error,” Kelly said. “The county has an opportunity to elect a person with the kind of experience to avoid numerous reversals and retrials. That costs thousands if not a million dollars.
“I am not saying I am not going to make a mistake, for heaven’s sake. But if you needed heart surgery and you had a choice between a heart surgeon who has performed hundreds of heart surgeries or just a good doctor, you would want the most technically trained specialist.”
Kelly is a director for the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and is an instructor in Huntsville at trial advocacy programs. She said she is also active in the community, donating her time and money to Fuzzy Friends, the American Cancer Society, Historic Waco Foundation, Waco Cultural Arts Fest and the Cameron Park Zoological and Botanical Society.
“I will continue to give and I will work hard,” she said. “This is what I have been training to do for the past 33 years.”
DeCluitt won the endorsement of the Waco Police Association in the race. She has been an assistant city attorney in Waco since May 2016. Before that she served as McLennan County justice of the peace for Precinct 1, Place 1, from April 2006 to January 2015.
She also served as an assistant city attorney in College Station for a year and was a McLennan County assistant district attorney from 2000 to 2006.
“I am the only candidate who has over eight years on the bench as a justice of the peace in the largest precinct in McLennan County,” DeCluitt said. “I have proven my electability. I have won every race I have ever entered, and I am the only candidate with a proven conservative record. I have been very active in the Republican Party for over 20 years, and I have been a public servant my entire legal career.”
DeCluitt would push to improve technology in the courtroom and work to streamline the criminal justice system to help shrink the docket and shorten the time between arrest and trial. 19th State District Court has 1,335 pending felony cases on its rolls, and DeCluitt said a little more cooperation between the court, DA’s office and the defense bar could improve the overall system.
“As JP, I introduced the first dismissal docket for that court,” she said. “That cleared the books of cases that had been there for decades, in some instances. You just can’t allow multiple resets on felony cases. You have to keep the docket moving. There are more than 25 prosecutors in the DA’s office now, and they should always be ready to go to trial.”
As assistant city attorney, DeCluitt focuses on economic development, hotels and economic incentives, the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, cemeteries and libraries.
“It is interesting being involved in Waco’s renaissance,” she said. “Basically we have never seen this type of growth, and I wrote up most of the contracts and helped negotiate many of those deals.”
Flynn joined the Army in 1983, graduated from Baylor University Law School in 1988 and served as an Army lawyer until 2016, including tours in Bosnia and Iraq.
He served 28 years on active duty representing the government as a Judge Advocate General and six years in the Army Reserve. While he was in the Army Reserve, he became chief of the criminal law division.
Flynn practiced law in Waco from 1996 to 2001 after he left active duty. He ran unsuccessfully against former Democratic McLennan County District Attorney John Segrest in 1998.
“I believe I have the right experience to be able to go in and move cases faster,” Flynn said. “That’s what I did in the Army. Basically, I would clean up the backlog of cases and they would send me to another location to clean up the backlog, and eventually, they put me in charge of all the criminal law for the Army Reserve.”
Flynn said he practiced under the Uniform Code of Military Justice for most of his career, but it is similar to the Texas Penal Code. There are few difference in military rules and Texas rules of evidence, he said.
Flynn said it concerns him about how long many criminal defendants languish in jail while waiting for their day in court.
“I would implement a lot of recommendations from the Office of Court Administration and the National Center for State Courts,” Flynn said. “They have standards and best practices and good ideas about helping getting courts involved in the efficient and effective administration of the docket. They help identify some particular practices that contribute to delays.”
Flynn said he did not hold fundraisers or solicit donations because he has “concerns about the perception that comes with getting money from people, particularly people who are criminal law practitioners.”
“I think there is a perception among everyday voters about the impact of contributions on elected officials,” he said.