When the people of Wood County elected a new district judge last fall, they got a package deal.
Attorney Jeff Fletcher was chosen to replace retiring Judge G. Timothy Boswell, who had sat on the bench for 17 years.
Fletcher brought Donna Huston (pronounced Houston) with him when he moved from his office across the street to the third floor of the Wood County Courthouse.
It was a move he wouldn’t have considered making without his legal assistant of five years.
“I couldn’t do this without Donna here,” Fletcher said during an interview in his Texas-themed office. “She’s an absolute rock star.”
In fact, when Huston took a rare day off recently, Fletcher joked that he should have stayed at the house or gone fishing, since he was adrift without her.
Huston said she enjoys working with Fletcher and feels that the district court has a “wonderful judge who is very jovial outside that courtroom. Inside that courtroom, it’s all business.”
It’s a good thing the two work well together because when they moved in, they admit to being a bit overwhelmed.
Fletcher, who keeps a journal, said Huston is the perfect combination of “grace and gunpowder” and “the toughest person I’ve ever known,” but even she had some difficult moments during the early months.
“On Jan. 13, an entry says, ‘Donna in tears again,’” he noted “We laugh about that now.”
Joy Parker, Judge Boswell’s court administrator, who also retired, left “big shoes” to fill.
While Huston was ironing out work flow, Fletcher reached out to his courthouse colleagues. Although the 1993 Texas A&M law school graduate had been a “street lawyer” for 23 years and was no stranger to the courthouse, he was unaware of the court’s leadership role in county government.
“I never realized how much the district court sets the tone for the whole county,” Fletcher noted. “I never had any reason to think about it.”
A learning curve was not the only issue facing the new duo.
There was a backlog of “just under” 500 criminal cases, so they did their best to streamline procedures and break the log jam.
During those first few months, they worked long hours, keeping them away from their families.
Fletcher and his wife of a little over three years, Marcie, live in Hainesville. Marcie teaches 5th grade math in Mineola.
Fletcher has three grown children from his first marriage, two grandchildren and one on the way.
Huston and her husband, Mark, the manager of Trammell Crow’s cattle operation, live between Winnsboro and Quitman. She has a daughter, 21, and two step-children.
“I got here at 7 in the morning and left at 6 at night,” Huston offered. “And I took my laptop home. I lived with that computer for the first three months.”
Prior to joining Fletcher’s office in Quitman, she worked at the feed store in Mineola and for an attorney in Canton.
Like her boss, Huston had no county government experience.
She says, “Everybody’s been very patient and understanding with me. I walked in not knowing a whole lot.”
Fletcher has only good things to say about the people who make the county work.
“We’ve got professionals in the right places,” the judge explained. “The sheriff is doing a great job. The district attorney’s office is working like Turks, and the district clerk has been a lifesaver for us.”
“It is my honor to work with Judge Fletcher and his court coordinator, Donna Huston,” said Jenica Turner, long-time district clerk. “Judge Fletcher takes his position as District Judge of the 402nd Judicial District Court seriously, honorably and handles his duties with integrity.”
Fletcher and Wood County Sheriff Tom Castloo, also newly elected, began their terms by holding a seminar for deputies.
“The judge, district attorney and I are 100 percent in concert in belief that we are here to do the job we were elected to do,” Castloo said during an interview at The News office Tuesday afternoon. “My officers and I will make arrests. The DA will take the cases for prosecution and the judge will oversee the meting out of justice.”
The sheriff and District Attorney Jim Wheeler are in “constant communication” these days.
“They have to be,” Fletcher explained. “It’s a long way from probable cause at the time of arrest to beyond a reasonable doubt. A lot of things have to happen to get from one end to the other and that requires a lot of communication.”
Fletcher and Huston began setting court five days a week, which requires constant revision of the docket.
Huston goes with Fletcher into the courtroom for both criminal and civil cases. In criminal cases, she handles administrative duties, including keeping the docket current.
“We set [dates] right in the courtroom so everyone knows their court date right then and there,” Huston said.
The team doesn’t set just one trial per day. They have two alternates, in case the first case settles.
“If they settle, we’ve got someone else ready to go,” Huston noted.
In civil matters, she takes her laptop into the courtroom so she can stay on top of things.
“I don’t waste time,” she said.
Their first docket call on Jan. 19 had 211 defendants.
“It was 60 pages long,” Huston remembered.
Prior to Fletcher’s term, the management of criminal cases was handled by the judge. Fletcher has returned that responsibility to the DA’s office.
“The district attorney office is a law firm,” he explained. “Those are their cases. I just call balls and strikes. I’ll be grading their papers regarding management and docket, but the cases belong to them.”
According to Wheeler, the line of communication between all parties has been “much more generous” since Jan. 1.
Wheeler says, “The pace is much speedier. From the minute we walk into the office in the morning until we leave, it’s fairly intense. It’s been a busy year, and that’s what we’re here for.”
Huston works closely with the DA’s senior office assistant, Connie Williams, who is responsible for the criminal docket. Williams is also a certified public accountant and a forensic auditor.
Fletcher seated his first grand jury Jan 4.
Wheeler also said that criminal defendants are “a lot more anxious and tremble in the face of justice” these days.
The DA’s current case load includes a range of crimes, from drug offenses to “several felony sexual assault cases.”
“They need to respect the judge and the courtroom and be aware that justice is certain,” Wheeler stated. “Jeff has been fair. He’s handed down everything from deferred adjudication to life sentences. He listens, pays attention and tries to do the right thing.”
“My job is to see that justice is done,” Fletcher explained. “Sometimes that means doing some pretty rough things from a punishment standpoint. I’m a firm believer in redemption, but I’m also a firm believer in consequences,” the judge said.
Wood County has been a hot spot for criminal activity because, the judge says, consequences weren’t always meted out.
“They are now,” he stated. “The jail is full.”
Fletcher strongly supports the law enforcement officers who put criminals in the jail.
“What they do is dangerous,” he said. “I am not going to allow something to happen to one of them that I could have done something about. If they’re risking their lives, the least I can do is enforce the law.”
When asked what he’d like to see happen in the next year, Fletcher has a ready answer.
“I’d want the number of drug cases to be significantly less than they are now,” he replied. “They’re the basis for all of our problems.”
In Fletcher’s courtroom, consequences are not limited to criminal matters.
In divorce cases, Fletcher says it’s the children who suffer, and he believes it’s his job to protect them as best he can.
The former Baylor football strong safety who played in the Cotton and Peach Bowls has a soft spot for kids.
“Very few times in a contested case involving children does it have anything to do with the best interest of the child,” the judge reported. “It’s about ‘I’m going to get back at her/him for doing that.’”
Since children don’t have a choice in the business of divorce, Fletcher orders mediation between the two parties before cases reach the hearing stage.
“Mediation works,” he stated. “It works because I tell them they’re not going to like what happens when they come back in the courtroom.”
Fletcher, who’s been through a divorce, believes it’s a lot easier for people to follow through and live with decisions they make on their own, as “opposed to someone telling them what to do.”
Hoping that feuding spouses will get it all out in mediation and “go back to being parents,” Fletcher tells them to visit while he calls the rest of the docket.
If they remain reluctant to resolve their differences, the judge asks, “Do you really want a fat guy in a black robe deciding what you folks need to do? Really? Is that what you want?”
Most cases settle.
“I’d like to think they came to their senses,” the judge says with a hearty laugh.
Fletcher and Huston agree that cases involving children and those who can’t help themselves are tough.
“I don’t like bullies,” Fletcher said. “I don’t like folks picking on people who can’t fight back.”
“We share the same views on bullies and children,” Huston noted. “Children are not only the victims of criminals, sometimes they’re the victims when parents are fighting.”
In addition to a reduction of drug-related cases, Fletcher also hopes to see a “dramatic” decrease in the number of family law cases being filed.
“Make your family work,” he noted. “Take care of your kids.”
“Judge Fletcher cares deeply about the welfare and best interest of the children in divorce and family cases,” said Turner. Her office oversees civil and family matters.
Huston said one of the best parts of her job is “helping people have closure. It’s very confusing and daunting to walk into a courtroom.”
She hopes to continue to be more organized and efficient.
As the interview was winding down, Fletcher picked up his phone and looked at the wallpaper, which is a photo of his father, who has been gone for three years.
“He told me to take care of business,” the jurist remembered.
Taking care of the county’s business is a charge the judge takes seriously, especially when it comes to courthouse security. He came to understand its importance during a visit he and Huston made to 102nd Judge Bobby Lockhart’s Texarkana courtroom in April of 2016.
A disagreeable defendant broke loose and headed for the door. Fletcher took matters into his own hands.
“If he got over to the door, I knew he was going to hurt somebody,” the judge-elect stated in an April 2016 interview with The News. “Instinct took over from the old Baylor days. I knew exactly what I was going to do. I thought, ‘This is going to be fun.’ I had time to get down low and launch myself into him. Donna said she saw the bottom of his feet.”
Under his watch, security at the Wood County Courthouse has been tightened and check points installed.
“You’ve got convenience on one end of the spectrum and security on the other,” the avid sportsman explained. “You can’t have them both.”
Turner, who has worked in the building for 27 years, 14 of them as district clerk, appreciates Fletcher’s efforts to make the courthouse safer for everyone.
“From day one, Judge was concerned about security of the courthouse,” Turner observed. “He has diligently worked with the commissioner’s court in bringing much-needed security measures to the courthouse.”
Although the transition from street lawyer to respected jurist has been pretty smooth so far, Fletcher expects an occasional bump in the road.
“I didn’t get elected to make friends,” he said. “I got elected to lead. Forty-three thousand people depend on what happens in this building. With that responsibility comes a little friction, and that’s OK.”
But after six months on the job, Huston and Fletcher can see a light at the end of the tunnel.
“We’re on the right track,” Huston stated.
“For the first time since I can remember, all the important parts of county government are pulling in the same direction,” the judge concluded. “We’ve certainly had our share of challenges, but it’s going great.”
And, one of the main reasons things are going smoothly in Fletcher’s professional life is Donna Huston.
“I depend on her for everything,” he readily admitted as he prepared to sign documents she put on his desk.