What do you know about the court system in Denton County? Most times, people only learn that answer if they are unfortunate enough to end up there due to an arrest situation or as a result of a civil process.
It’s a multi-tiered system, divided among the most serious crimes, all the way down to minor offenses such as traffic violations. District courts have original jurisdiction in all felony criminal cases, divorce cases, land title disputes, election contests and civil matters in which at least $200 in damages is claimed. Criminal Court judges handle misdemeanors in which conviction can result in jail time, while Justices of the Peace have jurisdiction in class C misdemeanor cases, punishable only by a fine. JP’s also have authority in civil matters where the amount in dispute is under $200.
Now that you know all you’ve ever wanted to know about the courts, let me introduce Denton County District Court Judge Bruce McFarling. A resident of Flower Mound for about 40 years, McFarling was elected in 2000 at the tender young age of 34. “When I first donned that long black robe I was a bit nervous, so I took advice from some of the older judges about how to comport myself on the bench,” he said with a boyish grin. He must have learned well because he easily won reelection in 2004, 2008 and 2012. The judge may have some political DNA, inasmuch as his mother was the first female council member (known as Alderman back then) in Flower Mound in 1976. She went on to become the first female Justice of the Peace in Lewisville in 1986. Moreover, his father started the Denton County Republican Party with Senator Jane Nelson’s father-in-law and a few other notables at the time. Before become a judge, he was a prosecutor on the Narcotics Task Force in the District Attorney’s Office, and handled federal cases as well.
About five years ago, I was selected to serve as a juror at a felonious assault trial presided over by Judge McFarling. I was impressed with his almost invisible demeanor, seldom commenting on the proceedings, but listening and watching attentively like an owl on a lofty perch in the darkness. You wouldn’t know he was there until an attorney made an objection, or behaved inappropriately. Then, a swift, but laconic response was heard from the authoritative figure behind the tall bench. As a former cop, I testified at many trials in which the judge became the most vociferous player in the courtroom, often taking sides and making life difficult for everyone concerned. Therefore, it was refreshing to see a judge handle his court without a self-centered display of narcissism. When the trial was over and we rendered our verdict, McFarling took the time to come to the jury room and thank us for doing our civic duty. His good humor and dry wit was a stunning departure from the serious, even somber-looking legal encyclopedia we had experienced for an entire day.
During lunch at our home on Thursday, my wife and I competed for the title of who asked the most questions. Without mentioning any particular cases, the judge gave us some idea of how varied and complex a trial can be, often involving children from dysfunctional families. When asked if he ever takes his work home with him, he said it’s very often difficult not to, especially when his decision can destine someone to life in a prison cell. Nevertheless, when justified, he has no problem rendered the maximum penalties. He earned the reputation of being tough, but fair. Since I’ve always been an advocate of determinate sentences, meaning if A and B are convicted of the same crime they should receive the same sentence, I asked for the judge’s opinion. He explained that each offense committed may have different components, even if they are in the same crime classification. Hence, the judge must have discretion when meting out punishment.
Denton County is number five in population density in the state and has seven district courts to handle the workload. McFarland said the county handles more cases per court than any other in the state. Is another District Court needed? “That’s a decision for the legislature to make,” he responded. The judge is married and has two children attending Flower Mound schools. When I commented on his suspenders, which were color-coordinated with the rest of his attire, he said that wasn’t by accident. Furthermore, he explained, “The clip-on types are called suspenders, but, the ones with the buttons attached at the waistline are called braces,” he added. I suppose it’s true; you can learn something new every day.
Bob Weir is a long-time Flower Mound resident and former local newspaper editor. In addition, Bob has 7 published books that include “Murder in Black and White,” “City to Die For,” “Powers that Be,” “Ruthie’s Kids,” “Deadly to Love,” “Short Stories of Life and Death” and “Out of Sight,” all of which can be found on Amazon.com and other major online bookstores.