Each of the candidates for Jefferson County’s 58th District Court are campaigning on their experience: one for his lifelong service as a civil trial attorney; the other for his life experience before becoming a trial attorney.
The bench for the 58th, one of Jefferson County’s four civil district courts, became vacant earlier this year when Judge Bob Wortham decided to step down and run for district attorney.
Republican candidate Tom Rugg, formerly a civil prosecutor, was appointed to the vacancy by Gov. Rick Perry on April 4. He’s now seeking the seat for his own term.
Rugg was first assistant prosecutor in the civil division of the Jefferson County DA’s office for 27 years, beginning in 1987. In that role, Rugg said he handled more than 150 jury trials.
“All I’ve ever done is work as a civil trial lawyer,” Rugg said at a recent candidate forum.
He earned an undergraduate degree from Lamar University in 1972 and then a law degree at the University of Texas Law School in 1976.
After law school, Rugg returned to Beaumont and joined what was then Strong Pipkin Nelson Parker & Powers then moved to what was then Provost Umphrey McPherson & Swearingen in Port Arthur.
Rienstra & Rugg was formed in 1985, and in the meantime Rugg served as an instructor in paralegal studies at Lamar University.
In 1987 he went to work for Jefferson County District Attorney Tom Maness, where he worked for the next 27 years, eventually becoming first assistant district attorney.
In 2013, he was also appointed by the Jefferson County Commissioners Court to serve as the judge of the County Court at Law No. 1 to fill the unexpired term of Judge Alfred Gerson, who died in August 2013.
“There was a backlog of about 4,500 cases (in County Court at Law No. 1),” Rugg said. “Within in a year, there were under 1,000 pending cases.”
He said it takes more than just working “eight-to-five” to get the job done.
When District Attorney Tom Maness announced he was retiring at the end of 2013 before his term was over, as first assistant Rugg automatically became acting DA.
He resigned after Gov. Rick Perry appointed assistant U.S. Attorney Cory Crenshaw to serve the rest of Maness's term.
Although he is running as a Republican, Rugg admitted he has voted in Democratic primaries in the past.
“That used to be the only option to vote in local races,” he said, referring to Jefferson County’s long history as a Democratic stronghold in an otherwise “Red State.”
“I’ve always considered myself a conservative Democrat,” Rugg said.
“I wish judicial elections were non partisan, but that’s how it is in Texas,” he added.
Rugg has served on numerous legal committees and professional organizations, including the Jefferson County Bar Association and the State Bar of Texas. In 1988, he was awarded the Chairman’s Award for Outstanding Service to the State Bar of Texas. He is licensed to practice law in Texas State Courts, U.S. District Courts for the Eastern District of Texas and the U.S. Supreme Court.
He has mediation experience as the director of the Mediation Center of Jefferson County Inc. from 1990 to 1994, and as a member of the management committee for Labor Relations of the Jefferson County Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas.
As the father of six, Rugg has spent many years in leadership roles for the Three Rivers Council of the Boy Scouts of America.
On Oct. 20, the Beaumont Enterprise announced it was endorsing Rugg in the race.
Rugg’s Democratic opponent, Kent Walston, says he has experience with the law in ways other than being a trial lawyer.
Walston, 54, announced his candidacy in November 2013, as soon as Judge Wortham anounced his run for DA.
Walston is a lifelong resident of Jefferson County and a veteran of the U.S. Navy. Like his father, Walston went to work in a local plant as a process operator.
He then put himself through Lamar University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration. That led to a job as assistant city manager for the city of Nederland.
“I didn’t go to law school until I was 35 years old,” Walston said at a recent forum.
He received his doctor of jurisprudence degree from Baylor Law School and has practiced civil, family and criminal law for the past 15 years.
“I have practiced law in every court in Jefferson County,” Walston said.
He also currently serves and municipal judge for the city of Nederland and previously served as the judge for mental health hearings.
“I have not been a lawyer all of my life,” Walston said. “I know what it’s like to struggle and live paycheck to paycheck. I have the work ethic.”
Although he is running as a Democrat, he calls himself a fiscal and social conservative.
Walston is a member of the Jefferson County Bar Association, the State Bar of Texas, the board of the State Bar CLE Committee, the Texas Family Law Section, Jefferson County Family Law Section, the Jefferson County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association and founder of the Jefferson County Family Law Association. He is also chairman of the Lawyers Professional Assistance Committee.
He serves the community as president of the Hughen Center for Handicapped Children abd the board of Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA). He was awarded the Port Arthur Sertoma Service to Mankind Award in 2012 and the State Bar of Texas Leadership Award in 2010.
Walston has received endorsements by the police departments of Beaumont, Nederland, Port Arthur and Port Neches; the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Association; State Police Coalition of Texas; Beaumont Professional Fire Fighters Local l399; Beaumont Police Chief Jimmy Singletary, Port Arthur Police Chief Mark Blanton, the Sabine Area Labor Council and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.