Election 2018

This story was updated at 1 p.m. Friday with an upload of the candidates' personal financial statements. 

Four attorneys are jockeying for the Republican nomination to preside over the 431st District Court in Denton County — and the race to succeed outgoing District Judge Jonathan Bailey looks to be a long one.

GOP hopefuls includes Cannon Cain, 49, James Johnson, 59, Derbha Jones, 57, and George Mitcham, 52. If none of the four wins the majority vote outright, the top two candidates head to a runoff on Tuesday, May 26. The winner of the GOP nomination then faces attorney Diana Weitzel, 62, the presumed Democratic nominee, in November.

No Democrat has run for district judge in Denton County since at least 2002, and likely much longer, according to party officials.

Candidates’ finance reports show Mitcham perhaps holding his cash for the long run, as he not only reported more in the bank ($7,800) than he spent during the last reporting period but also more in his campaign war chest than other candidate going into the final weeks of the primary. Both Jones and Johnson raised and spent more than Mitcham, but had less in the bank, about $2,600 and $5,000, respectively. Cain reported just $250 remaining.

After the Texas Legislature created the 431st District Court, Bailey was appointed as its first judge by former Gov. Rick Perry in 2011. Bailey was reelected to the post before deciding last summer that he would not run again.

He received a public admonition for violating three standards in the judicial code of conduct in July 2019. The disciplinary action from the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct followed a complaint that he did not recuse himself from a parental rights case in 2017. Two days after receiving the admonition, Bailey announced to party officials that he would not run again but cited instead political and personal reasons for his decision.

The Denton Record-Chronicle reviewed a variety of public records in building the candidate profiles below. Online documents include links to the candidate’s listing with the Texas State Bar, their latest campaign finance reports, and their voting histories.

While Cain has lived in Denton County for 11 years, he has no voting history with the county. He cited his military service as the reason. Older and upcoming campaign finance reports for the candidates, with lists of individual contributions and expenses, can be searched via the Texas Ethics Commission website, ethics.state.tx.us/search/cf/.

Personal financial statements for the candidates will be available after the Wednesday filing deadline.

Cannon Cain

Cannon Cain.jpg

Cannon Cain

Age: 49

Born in: Nashville, Tennessee

Education: law degree, Vermont Law School, 2000

Experience: corporate patent counsel, 2003; landman, 2005-present; oil and gas attorney, 2009-12; member, Texas Army National Guard, 2010-present, and regional manager, National Guard Bureau Special Victims’ Counsel Program, 2013-2018

Texas State Bar information: bit.ly/2OAfHxU

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, clients and other litigants?

In the U.S. Army, I was a regional manager for a special victims’ counsel program. We had to sell the idea, but it was met with a lot of resistance. The Army doesn’t like change, but we had a Department of Defense mandate. We had to adopt a lot of humility, in deference to their needs — just confirmation of their fears and concerns and convince them over time that we were there to serve them — and continuing that open conversation. We were highly successful.

What would you do if you saw someone being represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer?

If I know that the trial representation has fallen below levels accept by general conventions, and the Constitution, we’d have to stop the proceedings and take the attorneys into chambers to discuss whether it was as I was seeing it. Then, we’d take it from there. If someone’s rights are being violated, you have to stop the proceedings.

What is your vision for our justice system and how would you advocate for it?

Really, what we need is consistency and integrity on the bench. If we can establish that, we can move forward no matter what comes. We have to look backwards, too, and work in keeping a good, solid record. A consistent judiciary that rules with integrity is key.

My divorce was in this court and the judge violated my due process rights, and that’s why I’m running for this court.

I firmly think he [Bailey] should be denied the opportunity to be a visiting judge. I think the public should have a voice in that.

Jim Johnson

Johnson head shot.jpg

Jim Johnson

Age: 59

Born in: Fort Worth

Education: Bachelor of Business Administration in accounting and Bachelor of Arts in economics, University of Texas, 1983; law degree, Texas Wesleyan University, 2008

Experience: certified public account, 1985-92; chief financial officer, 1992-2000; chief executive officer, 2000-03; financial adviser, 2003-2015; attorney, 2008-present; professor at Texas A&M Law School, 2010-present.

Texas State Bar information: bit.ly/3bkjRDT

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, clients and other litigants?

I try to understand things from their point of view and I truly like people, so I like to spend time with them even when they are being difficult. I inject humor when I can. I have patience and I usually don’t have a problem with difficult people.

What would you do if you saw someone being represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer?

There is a presumption that the strategy that a lawyer is taking is in the best interest of the client. I would hesitate to insert myself into a civil matter. But in criminal cases, defendants have the absolute right to the effective assistance of counsel. I would have to have a hearing on it and consider whether it's appropriate to have advisory counsel to continue the case.

What is your vision for our justice system and how would you advocate for it?

I hesitate to use the word advocate because that’s not the job of a judge. But I would administer the [judicial] world I preside over as effectively as possible. I would reduce the backlog of cases. I would have as one performance indicator a measure of the percentage of cases resolved in one year and filing and have a goal to increase that for continuous improvement.

Derbha Jones

Jones head shot.jpg

Derbha Jones

Age: 57

Born in: Monroe, Louisiana

Education: law degree, Texas Wesleyan University, 2001

Experience: private practice attorney, 2002-present; board certified in family law and child welfare law and certified by Child Protective Services to represent children

Texas State Bar information: bit.ly/2UCH6mC

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, clients and other litigants?

First and foremost, I start each day with a prayer to make sure I’m well-grounded.

I take a deep breath, and no matter what situation I’m going into, I always respond respectfully. I don’t let the situation affect the way I react. I step away from the situation and give them time to cool down. And I require that they be respectful of my time.

What would you do if you saw someone being represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer?

It really depends on the incapacity. I think if a lawyer is under the influence or otherwise incapacitated, then a judge has a duty to step in, call a recess and deal with the problem. But I’m not one to judge them on their trial strategy.

Attorneys are required to do their job and a judge is required to do theirs. It’s not my job to judge to say whether you are ineffective — I’m not one to judge them on their trial strategy. They have a right to do that. And a client has the opportunity to appeal to the appellate courts if they feel they were not represented.

What is your vision for our justice system and how would you advocate for it?

I would like to see that all people have legal representation when they need it, whether it’s pro bono or at reduced rate, and that attorneys can give time to those that need representation. I would also like to see diversity on the benches across the board. All judges should follow the law and not try to legislate from the bench, regardless of their party affiliation, or race or economic status. There needs to be equal access for all.

George Mitcham

George Mitcham.jpg

George Mitcham

Age: 52

Born in: Urania, Louisiana

Education: law degree, Texas Wesleyan University, 2004

Experience: paratrooper, 1986-93; police officer, 1995-2002; assistant district attorney, 2005-14; private practice attorney, 2014-present

Texas State Bar information: bit.ly/2Uxg28y

How do you deal with difficult people, including peers, clients and other litigants?

I use patience. I have spent my career in extremely high-stress situations where people are not always at their best. My experience over a lifetime has shown me that patience is the best key to dealing with people like that.

What would you do if you saw someone being represented by an unprepared or ineffective lawyer?

First, I would bring the lawyer into my chambers and discuss what the issue is about, because it could be physical or mental or some other impairment. Then, I would give them the opportunity to withdraw so the client could find competent counsel. If they refuse, I would follow the state bar rules for a complaint. This must be done before they do something to harm their client — giving them the opportunity to withdraw — because the client’s rights are paramount. If they still refuse, then I would report them to the state bar.

What is your vision for our justice system and how would you advocate for it?

Everyone who has a reason to litigate should have an opportunity to be heard. Our courts are funded by tax dollars and there is a constant struggle to create more courts versus saving those tax dollars if it’s not necessary. But the system was created to air grievances. I would advocate for making sure that we have the venue to air them in open court.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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