Jennifer Bergman ’04 is a trailblazer, as she is the first female district attorney in Liberty County, located in East Texas.
Jennifer, a longtime attorney and prosecutor, was sworn in for her current position last January in the county seat of Liberty, Texas, located northeast of Houston.
“I am excited that I broke that glass ceiling,” Jennifer says. “We never had a female district attorney or district judge. It is such an honor to be able to represent Liberty County with integrity and dedication.”
Jennifer is a native of Cleveland, Texas, also located in the county, and was serving as a member of the city council at the time of her election as district attorney. An experienced litigator, Jennifer was also a private-practice attorney, with specialties in family law, criminal defense, probate law, property damage, and general civil litigation. She also served as the head prosecutor for the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Trial Court. The Alabama-Coushatta is one of three federally recognized Native American tribes in Texas.
Her ascent to the office of district attorney was an interesting one, to say the least.
Jennifer’s husband, Zack Harkness, started the family election cycle by running for Liberty County constable Precinct 6 in the March 2020 primary. Zack led the Republican Primary, but was approximately 40 votes shy of escaping the need for a runoff with the incumbent. In July 2020, Zack won the race by a significant majority, and he ran opposed in the general election.
Jennifer, who had filed to run in the March 2020 primary for the office of district attorney a month after her husband, helped her spouse in his campaign, all the while working in her solo law practice, successfully running her own campaign, and sharing in the care of their then-9-month-old twin children, son Hudson and daughter Ella (now age 2.5).
Jennifer decided to enter the Republican Primary for the district attorney’s position after no one else would challenge the incumbent, Logan Pickett.
“We needed to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Jennifer says. “We deserved better than the current administration, which was riddled with turmoil and scandal. No one would make that leap, and I felt the need to do that. I made that leap with my whole heart, but I was terrified. My husband was running for constable, and now I was running for district attorney. It was definitely a lot to take on with two small children at home, as well.”
Jennifer defeated the two-term incumbent in the primary, chalking up nearly 55% of the vote. No Democrat entered the race, so Jennifer looked like a shoe-in for the job.
But, there was still one hurdle to overcome. Jennifer’s name was accidentally omitted from the ballot for the general election. Discovering this error at the beginning of early voting, Jennifer contacted the Texas secretary of state, who declared her the winner of the election!
Jennifer and Zack were sworn in, side by side, on Jan. 4, 2021, using the same bible her grandparents utilized when Jennifer was a child.
Jennifer’s family history in Liberty County dates back to 1880. In fact, her grandparents were elected county commissioners. Her grandfather, Harold Rhoden, served as a commissioner from 1976-82, until his death in office. Grandmother Marcelene Rhoden was appointed and ultimately had to run for office in order to serve out the remainder of her husband’s unexpired term. In doing so, she defeated two male candidates and became the first female county commissioner in Liberty County history, serving from 1982-84. Marcelene decided not to enter the race at the expiration of her term.
Jennifer has the assistance of a staff of 24 people: 5 prosecutors, 5 courthouse security officers, 4 investigators, and 10 staff members.
“My staff has done a phenomenal job,” Jennifer says. “It’s never easy coming in after an incumbent and a hotly contested race. One of the biggest challenges we have faced is COVID. It has caused countless issues, and not just in my office, but for prosecutors across the state and the country. For over a year we didn’t have any jury trials. We have only recently started having jury trials, and the backlog of cases is shocking. But, I am confident my staff will continue to work diligently to move cases, and see that justice is pursued. I want people to know that Liberty County is a place where you can find justice and fairness.”
Jennifer earned a bachelor’s degree from Trinity in history and political science. She was a senator with the Association of Student Representatives and served as a mentor for the First-Year Leadership Council.
She played third base for the 2001 Tiger softball team (led by head coach Roland Rodriguez), which captured the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship. Trinity advanced to the NCAA Division III Regional at Pella, Iowa. Jennifer decided not to play after her first year because of a shoulder injury, and to focus on her studies.
After graduation, Jennifer taught fourth grade and coached basketball and volleyball in McAllen, Texas. She entered the South Texas College of Law in Houston in 2005 and earned her Doctorate of Jurisprudence in 2008.
“Trinity groomed me to be a leader,” Jennifer says. “I wanted to strive to make my community and my world a better place. There was an emphasis on being a leader inside the classroom and outside the classroom, and also on public service.”
Jennifer cites David Crockett, chair of Trinity’s political science department, as being influential during her time on campus. She also lists retired professors Tucker Gibson (political science) and Terry Smart (history) as having an impact on her life and path to reach her goals.
One of her favorite people at Trinity is Stacey Lenderman, the office manager for Athletics! Jennifer worked as a student for Stacey during their days at Residential Life, and they have kept in touch all these years.