The Honorable Kent A. Jordan
President, American Inns of Court
By Melanie Padgett Powers
Anyone who joined the Jordan family dinner table when Judge Kent A. Jordan was a child would not be surprised to see what careers the six children selected. Jordan was born and raised at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, where his father, Amos Jordan, was the youngest professor in the modern history of the Academy, teaching national security, political science, economics, and history. Jordan, the youngest of six children, describes his childhood as “idyllic.”
“There was a palpable sense of patriotism on the post, and we were raised with a strong feeling of gratitude for the nation and all that it offers. The words ‘duty, honor, country” were constant reminders to that ethos, and that’s been a real blessing,” he says.
Conversations at family dinner often focused on public policy, national security, and foreign affairs, with his parents educating their children and encouraging debate. The three sons ended up studying law, while the three daughters became a journalist, a nurse practitioner and professor, and the “classic business executive’s spouse,” helping her husband’s career at every step.
On July 1, 2020, Jordan became the new president of the American Inns of Court. He is a U.S. circuit judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which is based in Philadelphia. He was previously a U.S. district judge on the U. S. District Court for the District of Delaware. His home Inn is the Richard S. Rodney American Inn of Court in Wilmington, Delaware. He is also an adjunct professor of law at Vanderbilt University and the University of Pennsylvania.
As a young man, Jordan was influenced by his service in Japan as a missionary for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Living in Japan for 22 months in the late 1970s was “a very formative and important part of my life,” he says.
After earning his undergraduate degree in economics at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, Jordan earned his law degree at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. One of his brothers had shared what a great experience it was to work for a district judge, so Jordan set his sights on a clerkship. He was offered one with Judge James L. Latchum, of the United States District Court for the District of Delaware.
“I wasn’t really sure what I was going to do except I wanted to have that clerkship, and it turned out to be highly significant to me,” Jordan says. “The judge—my judge, I think of him as—was a big influence on me. … I loved the year I clerked for him, and I was so impressed with the challenging and adrenaline-producing work that a trial judge gets to do. So, I thought if that opportunity ever came my way, I would jump at it.”
Before that opportunity arrived, however, Jordan practiced law in a variety of ways. First, he was in private practice, with a focus on corporate and commercial litigation. But when he was offered a spot as an assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA), he could not pass it up.
“Those AUSA positions are highly sought after, as they should be. It’s an honor and a wonderful experience to get to be an assistant U.S. attorney,” Jordan says. “I’ve never had more fun in my career, nor been more satisfied in my career. To get to stand up and say to a jury, ‘I represent the United States of America’ is really a signal honor.”
It was hard but satisfying work. “There are few things in life that engage so much of a person’s intellect and energy as trial work,” he explains. “Standing up in front of the jury and presenting a case is a demanding and an exhilarating experience. You are responsible as a prosecutor to only bring cases that you think need to be brought and legitimately can be brought, and so you’re not beholden to a client in the traditional sense.
“You’re making judgments about what justice requires, and then you’re fighting for justice as you understand it. And on the other side, you’ve got an able and a capable defense lawyer. … That adversary system playing out in front of a good trial judge—it’s a thrilling thing to be a part of that process and see the rule of law working its way to a specific conclusion in a specific case.”
After his experience as an AUSA, Jordan returned to private practice for several years, this time focusing particularly on intellectual property litigation. He then took the opportunity to work in-house and view the law from another vantage point. He became vice president and general counsel for Corporation Service Company (CSC). CSC’s rapid growth provided Jordan the opportunity to build an in-house legal department and work with “great business people who also became great friends.”
“I thought that that would be an exceptional experience, to get to see the law from a different perspective,” Jordan explains. “In litigation, practically by definition, you’re coming in after things have gone badly awry. I thought it would be fun and interesting and challenging to see the law during the building phase, not when things have gone haywire but when you’re trying to make things work.”
From CSC, Jordan took away respect for business professionals. “One of the things that I learned was how really good, thoughtful, smart, ethical business people operate—the way they see opportunity, the way they work to take appropriate advantage of the opportunities that come their way, the way they work in teams, the way good leaders motivate people.”
But then, a long-dreamed-of opportunity arose. A spot opened up on the U.S. District Court for the District of Delaware when one of the judges planned to retire. Jordan was nominated by George W. Bush and confirmed by the Senate in 2002. Four years later, he was nominated and confirmed for a seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit.
Along the way, Jordan has been involved with the American Inns of Court almost from day one. He learned about the idea of bringing the British mentoring system to the U.S. from an American Bar Association article. He saw that the first Inn was being created at his alma mater, Brigham Young University. He asked his brother, a lawyer in Salt Lake City, about Judge A. Sherman Christensen—who would become that Inn’s founding president.
“My brother said he was a great judge and a wonderful gentleman and if I had questions about the American Inns of Court, he was sure that the judge would probably be happy to talk to me.” Jordan laughs at his own gumption: “So, between my second and third year of law school, there in Salt Lake City, clerking for my brother’s firm, I picked the phone up and called Judge Christensen’s chambers and asked if I could talk to him about the American Inns of Court, and he said, ‘You bet. Come on over.’”
After spending more than an hour talking with the judge about his vision of the Inns , Jordan came away both impressed with the judge and excited about the concept. “I just couldn’t think of anything that would be more interesting and educational than getting to practice courtroom legal skills in front of lawyers and judges who were the best at it in the community … to have a chance to listen to and learn from these people, to break bread with them and get to know them and understand how they approached their careers.
“The Inns of Court movement is an extraordinary vehicle for passing on the best of the profession from one seasoned group to an up-and-coming group.”
Jordan returned to Georgetown and connected with professor Sherman L. Cohn, who would become the first American Inns of Court national president. The two helped create the Charles Fahy American Inn of Court in Washington, DC. Jordan also served as a student member of an ad hoc committee of the Judicial Conference of the United States exploring the creation of a national organization to promote the American Inns of Court.
Now, as a judge and the new president of the American Inns of Court, Jordan looks back and says he hopes he has internalized the credo of the American Inns of Court, bringing civility and the highest ethical standards to his work, as well as professionalism and a dedication to excellence. Those in the legal profession should embrace their responsibility of “providing equal justice under law to every citizen,” he says. “We’re living at a time when that promise is one that some people feel just has not been met—and there’s evidence that for some people, it clearly hasn’t been met in tragic ways—but it’s still something that we should be aspiring to and working toward.
“[We should be a] part of that process of seeking to improve the administration of justice in our society so that people are feeling, one hopes, more and more that they get fairness and due process and proper representation when they have problems. That’s a great thing to be a part of, and the Inns of Court are singularly well-positioned to lead in that effort.”
As Jordan looks back at his life and career, he says his happiest achievement is “raising good kids.” He and his wife, Michelle, have six adult children and 11 grandchildren, with a 12th due in August. It appears that, more than just public policy and history, those nightly family dinners and idyllic childhood at West Point taught him something about the priority of family too.