Jeff Davis County reels after sudden death of county judge

Gentle, kind and thoughtful: Tributes poured in after Jeff Davis County Judge Kerith Sproul-Hurley died this weekend at 45.

JEFF DAVIS COUNTY — An avid outdoorswoman and hunter.  A thoughtful and consensus-based leader. A mother and grandmother with a doting husband who — when she wasn’t focused on county business — enjoyed feeding hummingbirds and playing with her dogs at the family ranch.

Those were some of the tributes that came in this week as Jeff Davis County residents reeled from the news that their county judge, Kerith Sproul-Hurley, had died. She was 45.

Sproul-Hurley was found dead at her home on Sunday — and by that evening, condolences were pouring in on social media. At press time, her cause of death hasn’t been publicly announced.

In recent years, Sproul-Hurley dedicated herself to public service — serving first as a county commissioner and later as county judge, a position she’d held since 2018. In addition to her work as a public official, she also worked at her family’s H.E. Sproul Ranch and the connected Harvard Hotel & Lodge with her husband Roy, whom she married in 2016.

“I love her and miss her so much, as do her four kids and two grandkids,” Roy said in a statement to The Big Bend Sentinel. “She was a beautiful, amazing wife and my best friend.”

Sproul-Hurley’s colleagues at the county were also saddened by the news of her death.  They said Sproul-Hurley would be remembered as an official who cared deeply for the Jeff Davis County community and always sought to bring other officials into her decision making.

“She was kind and compassionate,” said Jennifer Wright, who worked with Sproul-Hurley as the Jeff Davis county clerk. “She was a great judge and a great friend — not only to each of us, but throughout the whole community. She never had her own agenda.”

Larry Francell, the emergency management coordinator for Jeff Davis County, agreed — describing Sproul-Hurley as a “very smart and thoughtful woman” who was “very careful in her decision-making” and always made sure to “solicit opinions from other people.”

“She didn’t make snap judgements, which I respected greatly,” Francell added. “I loved working with her. She was such a sweet person — and so smart.”

Teresa Todd, who worked with Sproul-Hurley as the county attorney, posted a lengthy tribute to Sproul-Hurley on social media.

“With a heavy heart and great sadness, I mourn the loss of my friend and colleague,” Todd wrote. “I loved working with Kerith. She held herself daily with kindness, grace and compassion, always carefully considering how her decisions as Jeff Davis County judge affected others.”

Sproul-Hurley’s consensus-based leadership model was clear throughout the coronavirus crisis. In July, Governor Greg Abbott imposed face mask requirements across the state but allowed counties with less than 20 active cases (including Jeff Davis County) to request an exemption.

That put Sproul-Hurley and the rest of the county commissioners court at the center of a heated local debate over facemasks. As county judge, Sproul-Hurley could have requested an exemption herself — but she previously told The Big Bend Sentinel she didn’t want to unilaterally make such a decision.

“Technically, I could sign off on it,” she said in July, “but I would prefer that my [county] commissioners were on board too.” So she sought feedback from the community and put the question to her commissioners for a vote. About a week later, the Jeff Davis County commissioners court decided against getting an exemption.

In interviews this week, commissioners said they appreciated that leadership style. “Almost every action we’ve taken has been a vote on the court,” said Commissioner Todd Jagger. “We’ve been working from that consensus model. I think she just did it naturally.”

Jagger, who said he’d known Sproul-Hurley since she was a kid, described her as a “kind and gentle soul” who “always had the best interests of the county first and foremost” and “always tried to consider every angle” when making decisions “based not necessarily on what was easiest, but what was the right thing to do.”

“That’s an admirable trait for anybody,” he added.

Curtis Evans, another commissioner, said that while Sproul-Hurley rarely sought the limelight, she was “always behind the scenes pushing and getting things done.”

“She was such a sweetheart. She cared so much about this county,” he added. “It’s a devastating loss.”

“Kerith was as good as they come,” agreed Commissioner Albert Miller. “She spent her life trying to help other folks — she really did.”

“She was just a really good person,” he added. “Nobody has a bad thing to say about Kerith.”

Despite working to make decisions as a team, Sproul-Hurley nonetheless found herself on the receiving end of angry calls and emails from people who were upset with county actions. And that was particularly true during the coronavirus pandemic, when normally low-key county- and city-level meetings took a front seat in debates over everything from shelter-in-place orders to mask requirements.

In her tribute on social media, Todd, the county attorney, said Sproul-Hurley had been under a lot of stress as she navigated how to best serve the community during a pandemic.

“Her kind nature made these last five months very difficult for her,” Todd added. “Kerith took criticism to heart, so was always searching for that impossible way to keep everyone happy and safe.”

As county officials mourn the passing of a beloved colleague, they’re also grappling with another question: What comes next?

Under normal circumstances, commissioners could appoint a judge who could serve for two years. But these are hardly normal circumstances, with the coronavirus pandemic still raging and budget and election season coming up.

Making matters even more complicated, Jeff Davis County will need a judge to guide them through the rest of the budget process. “Only a county judge can do that,” Todd said. Worse, Sproul-Hurley was next up for re-election in 2022 — meaning there are so far no other candidates for county judge on this year’s ballot. The upcoming election also means the appointed judge will only serve through December, rather than a full two-year term.

The Jeff Davis County Commissioners Court is set to discuss these issues on Monday, at which point they’ll likely appoint a temporary county judge. That meeting will be in-person, not over Zoom.

“It just seems too important,” Todd said of why county officials were choosing to meet in-person. But with the sudden death of a top official and friend to many in Jeff Davis County, “it’s gonna be a rough few months,” Todd said.