Two contested criminal court positions are on the ballot in the March 4 election, with one incumbent judge facing a challenger and two local attorneys tossing their hats into the ring for an open position in the Republican primary.
County Criminal Court No. 3 incumbent Judge David Garcia faces George Mitcham, a prosecutor in the Denton County district attorney’s office.
For the open County Criminal Court No. 5 bench, Flower Mound attorney Victor “Vic” Rivera and Denton attorney Charles “Coby” Waddill are vying for the seat being vacated by Judge Richard Podgorski, who is not seeking re-election.
Both judicial positions bring four-year terms and an annual salary of $154,437, according to Donna Stewart, budget director for Denton County. Both courts generally handle criminal misdemeanor cases and intoxication offenses. County Criminal Court No. 3 also serves as home to the veterans court, and CCC5 serves as the county’s DWI court, among other duties.
The seats are among 11 judicial posts up for election this year, with eight incumbents unopposed. Incumbent Judge Margaret E. Barnes of Denton is unopposed in the GOP primary but is facing Democrat David Heiman, of The Colony, in November.
Early voting starts Feb. 18 and runs through Feb. 28.
County Criminal Court No. 3
Garcia, 55, was an attorney working in private practice until he was appointed to the County Criminal Court No. 3 in 1997 after the court was approved by the Texas Legislature at the request of county commissioners to help assist with a backlog of criminal cases. Garcia defeated current District Attorney Paul Johnson in the 1998 Republican primary for his first four-year term and has won re-election three times since.
The court handles Class A and B criminal misdemeanors and has concurrent jurisdiction with district courts in certain intoxication offenses. The court also serves in the place of the constitutional county court for Class A and B criminal misdemeanor cases, county officials said, as well as being home to the veteran’s court program.
Mitcham, 46, said he thinks the court needs change.
“Change is a good thing, and we need some organization in there,” he said. “Money would be saved all around if we had a more efficient court that processed cases and arranged dockets better.”
Mitcham would focus on the veterans court program, a collaborative process between the court, defense counsel and prosecutors to treat combat-related mental health conditions that could contribute to criminal behavior. Once a veteran graduates from the program, the Denton County district attorney’s office will wipe his or her criminal record clean.
“There will be no veterans serving as judge when Podgoski retires,” said Mitcham, a U.S. Army veteran and former Carrollton police officer.
Garcia, who also has served as a municipal judge for the city of Denton, said he has a heart for veterans in the county and has poured hours into the program to help shape what it is today. The court recently hired Jeff Gilmore, a military veteran and former probation officer, to oversee the program full time.
Mitcham said he has seen it all during his tenure as a military veteran, a police officer and now a prosecutor.
“I know what it’s like to fight a drunk at 2 a.m. to someone running with a knife,” Mitcham said. “I have seen the entire process, from arrest to prosecution, and will bring that knowledge and understanding to the table.”
Tweaking the veterans court and organizing the court system are on Garcia’s mind, as well.
“Every day is a learning experience,” Garcia said. “I can say that I believe my court is the most-efficient-running court [in] processing cases and keeping an eye out for the tax dollar. It’s your money, not my money, and I want to make sure it’s spent wisely.”
County Criminal Court No. 5
The candidates for the open CCC5 seat have come out swinging, with Waddill challenging Rivera’s qualifications, and Rivera pointing to his record as a municipal court judge.
Waddill, 43, who describes himself as a “lifelong Republican,” has been working with various law firms for the past 15 years and believes he is the best-qualified candidate.
“My vision is to run a smooth court and my experience shows that,” Waddill said. “My opponent isn’t even certified in criminal law; he is just a family attorney.”
Rivera, 42, who is currently a partner at his own law firm with his wife, said being a judge has always been a lifelong passion. He has been serving as a municipal judge for the Town of Flower Mound since being elected there in 2010.
“Knock on wood: No appeals, yet,” the self-described Christian family man said.
County Criminal Court No. 5 was created by the Texas Legislature in 1999 and was included in the 2001 county budget. The court was created to assist the other criminal courts with case backlogs and handles Class A and B criminal misdemeanors. It also has concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts in some intoxication offenses, and it currently serves as the county’s DWI court. It also handles some civil cases and assists other courts as needed.
Rivera said that while working for an area law firm after graduating law school, he was required to become board certified in either criminal or family law. He said at the time he was able to apply his experience working on criminal cases to become certified in family law.
While several candidates are proposing that a mental health court or division be brought in at some point, Waddill, a 10-year board member with Denton County’s MHMR Center, said he will work with commissioners to implement a mental health caseload division like those in neighboring counties.
“I see the need daily,” he said. “So many cases in our court system today stem from those suffering some kind of mental illness.”
Both Waddill and Rivera said they are prepared to take on the DWI court responsibilities, but that they understand that the court is assigned to handle those cases and that they would need to be an active, experienced judge before taking on the larger role.
“The problem with creating new specialty courts is the financial burden onto the taxpayers,” Rivera said. “We need to look at what we can do within to better operate.”
MEGAN GRAY can be reached at 940-566-6885 and via Twitter at @MGrayNews.
County Criminal Court No. 3
Occupation: Judge, County Criminal Court No. 3.
Prior political history: Associate municipal judge for the City of Denton, 1995-1997; appointed by the Denton County commissioners to be the first judge of the newly created County Criminal Court No. 3 in 1997; elected in 1998 to a full four-year term, and re-elected in 2002, 2006 and 2010.
Background: Attorney in private practice until appointed to the bench; has served on the Board of Directors for Denton County Friends of the Family, CASA, and Denton Boy’s Baseball; coached youth baseball and basketball; has been actively involved in the children’s ministry at Denton Bible Church and helped begin the Special Needs Ministry at the church, where he continues to teach.
Top priorities for this office: Continue to defend the constitutions of our state and county by ensuring that individuals who have been charged with criminal offenses (and their victims) receive their day in court as quickly as possible consistent with justice; to make a difference in the lives of individuals appearing before the court and ensure the safety of the residents of citizens of Denton County; to continue the success of the programs started with college-age individuals who have been arrested for drug- or alcohol-related offenses; to expand the Veterans Court program to ensure that all combat veterans who are involved in the criminal justice system receive the help and assistance they deserve.
Occupation: Felony prosecutor for the Denton County District Attorney’s Office
Prior political history: Never held any office previously; ran for County Court at Law No. 1 in 2010.
Background: Former U.S. paratrooper, former Carrollton police officer and current prosecutor.
Top priorities for this office: Redouble the effort to help veterans successfully complete the Veterans Court Treatment Program.
County Criminal Court No. 5
Victor “Vic” Rivera
Hometown: Flower Mound
Occupation: Associate municipal judge for the Town of Flower Mound; owner/attorney of the Rivera Legal Group, PLLC
Prior political history: Never elected to public office; current judicial position is by appointment.
Background: Associate judge for The Town of Flower Mound, December 2010-present; owner/attorney for Rivera Legal Group, December 2012-present; associate attorney for Koonsfuller, P.C., November 2011-November 2012; attorney-at-law for Minor & Jester, P.C., March 2011-October 2011; attorney with The Wright Firm, LLP, June 2008-March 2011; attorney for Miller, Johnson, Blakley and Associates, July 2007-June 2008; adjunct professor in business law at West Texas A&M University, August 2007-May 2008; associate attorney and former law clerk for Boatwright & Hamilton, March 2006-January 2008; police officer and field training officer for the Fort Worth Police Department, intermediate certification, April 1999-April 2004; U.S. Army veteran; attends and volunteers at Valley Creek Church in Flower Mound; volunteers with national organizations such as Samaritan’s Purse, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Ronald McDonald House and Wounded Warrior Project.
Top priorities for this office: Make the court more efficient and would separate individuals who are handling their own cases from those cases handled by attorneys; review how long cases remain on the docket to reduce the extended period of time between hearings; reduce the number of preliminary hearings to prevent citizens from having to take off from work more than necessary; examine each offender’s criminal history to ensure that repeat offenders do not get lenient sentences and that punishment is appropriate.
Charles “Coby” Waddill
Hometown: Unincorporated Denton County, between Aubrey and Sanger
Occupation: Attorney, board certified in criminal law
Prior political history: Sought nomination of the Denton Republican Executive Committee to replace Judge Lee Gabriel on the ballot in 2010 when she was elevated to the Second District Court of Appeals
Background: Practicing law for 15 years; St. Mary’s University Criminal Justice Clinic, 1998; Wagstaff Law Firm, 1999-2000; Hammerle Finley Law Firm, 2000-2006; sole practitioner, 2006-2007; MPW Law firm, 2007-present; member of board of trustees and board chair since 2003 of Denton County MHMR Center.
Top priorities for this office: Protection of the public and decisions consistent with the U.S. and Texas constitutions; to create a Mental Health Managed Caseload similar to those operated by Collin and Tarrant counties.