Former 114th District Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent, who retired from the bench in 2008 after 24 years as a Smith County judge, started work this morning as an assistant Smith County district attorney.
Ms. Kent will assist with cases involving child protective services. Her position is being funded by money forfeited by criminal defendants in federal cases. No Smith County tax dollars are being used to fund Ms. Kent's position, according to District Attorney Matt Bingham.
The Smith County District Attorney's office works with federal prosecutors in solving cases. The D.A.'s office has a federal forfeiture funds account and a state forfeiture funds account.
She was the first elected female judge in Smith County when she became County Court-at-Law No. 2 judge in 1984 at 30 years old. She was also one of very few Republicans to be elected in a then heavily Democratic county. She was pregnant with her third and youngest son, whom she called her "bench baby" in a 2008 interview at the time of her election and was involved in a lot of firsts in Smith County courts.
Judge Kent helped write legislation that allowed county court-at-law judges to preside over family and civil cases with unlimited jurisdiction to help move them more quickly through the system.
Hers was one of the first courts in the state to volunteer in a pilot project placing interlock devices in cars of DWI offenders, which has become common practice. She organized a campaign in 18 counties as regional director on the Victims Rights Constitutional Amendment passed in Texas.
Judge Kent was the first judge in the county to use home arrest with electronic monitoring, the first to start ordering DWI offenders to go to victim impact panels and she was the first judge in Smith County to start the Free Press Program to allow cameras in the courtroom. She said she wrote the guidelines to allow cameras in the courtrooms, which are used in Texas and other states.
Judge Kent was elected judge of the 114th District Court in 1989 and continued implementing and enforcing new programs in the county while presiding over thousands of criminal and civil cases. She was also district judge presiding over cases in Wood County, along with her Smith County duties, for 11 years.
Judge Christi Kennedy currently serves as judge in that court.
In 2006, she organized the Alternative Incarceration Center, a program designed to alleviate jail overcrowding, which has saved the county millions of dollars by keeping nonviolent offenders out of jail. "None of them (the programs) were just me," she said. "There were always hard-working prosecutors, other judges, the sheriff's office and probation office that would partner with me to work on the programs."
Judge Kent has been involved in judicial education around the state and nation; has been a faculty member for the National Judicial College since 1993 and on the faculty of Texas College for New Judges since 1986. She said judicial education is important to her because she believes judges should be scholarly, open-minded and fair.
Judge Kent has volunteered her time teaching courses at Texas College and The University of Texas at Tyler and speaking engagements, which she will continue, in many states.
Throughout her years on the bench, she was focused on docket management - she worked hard to move cases so the litigants could get their civil and criminal matters resolved, she said.
"They deserved their day in court in a timely fashion and that was real important to me. … That's probably some of the reason why some people are unhappy with me because I worked them really hard," she said.
When asked to discuss some of the more important cases she presided over, Judge Kent said, "There's just 24 years of doing what the people elected me to do.
"It's important for a judge to believe every case is important. There are no unimportant cases."
But she has seen her share of high-profile cases.
The first one she recounted was a case that made national and international news - Deanna Laney, a mother found not guilty by reason of insanity in 2004 for stoning her two young sons to death and seriously injuring a third son.
Judge Kent has presided over 39 capital murder cases - that's one of the largest numbers of capital cases in the state, she said. Each capital murder case was fairly high-profile, but some garnered more attention than others.
Staff Writer Casey Murphy contributed to this report.
Updated Monday, July 2, 2012 at 12:07 p.m. CDT