In the summer of 2010, Governor Rick Perry appointed County Court at law Judge Margaret Barnes as judge of the 367th District Court in Denton County, replacing Judge Lee Gabriel, who became the GOP nominee for the 2nd Court of Appeals, which Gabriel subsequently won.
Judge Barnes ran unopposed in November 2010 and was elected to her first four-year term. On Nov. 4, the lifelong Republican is running for re-election and is opposed for the first time in her career against Democratic opponent David Heiman.
Born in Detroit, Michigan, Barnes went to Oklahoma City University in 1982, then moved to Texas and attended Southern Methodist University School of Law, achieving her Juris Doctor in 1985 and became licensed to practice law in May 1986. Recently, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing her at my home office in Flower Mound.
Her legal experience began as Lewisville’s first assistant city attorney in 1986, where she handled cases in courts throughout the North Texas area, while continuing her private practice. In 1999, she was appointed associate judge of the Denton County Probate Court until 2002, when she became judge of the newly created position, County Court at Law No. 2. When she took the district judgeship, she was replaced by Robert Ramirez, who continues in that position today.
Barnes lives in Denton and has two daughters, ages 25 and 23. “My older one is extremely Republican and used to challenge her Democrat professors at OU,” Barnes said with a smile. “My younger daughter is a chef, and she has not expressed any political views,” she added. I asked if either of them expressed any interest in law. “Not a bit,” she said. “I love the legal profession, but I doubt they ever thought twice about it.”
Among her numerous accomplishments, Judge Barnes is admitted to practice law before the Northern and Eastern United States District courts and U.S. Supreme Court. She is a member of the State Bar of Texas, Texas Board of Legal Specialization Family Law Section, Texas Academy of Family Law Specialists and Denton County Bar Association. Her decades of service to the Denton GOP includes underwriting each Precinct Chair Appreciation Dinner and Lincoln/Reagan Dinner since 2000 and receiving the Volunteer of the Year award from the Denton GOP in 2009.
This year, she received the Judge Advocate of the Year award from the Young Lawyers Section of the Denton County Bar Association. In addition, out of the 90,000 lawyers in Texas, only 765 of them are board certified in family law; Judge Barnes is one of them.
District courts in Texas handle everything except juvenile, probate, or misdemeanor cases. “We hear murder, robbery, burglary, divorces, child support, CPS (Child Protective Services) cases, all family law from adoptions, some of which come from CPS, where parents’ rights may be an issue,” the judge said.
I asked her what the case load is like for a district judge in this county. “Every day is booked up and there are certain cases that have to be special cases. For example, a child protective order, or a restraining order,” she replied. “There are times when a new case is filed and the attorney may see it sooner that we do because we’re not going to know if the lawyer has been waiting for three weeks for a hearing, since they (the cases) are just piled up.”
When asked what it’s like on the campaign trail, she responded, “It’s actually a very rewarding experience. This is the first time as judge of a district court, or any court, that I actually have someone who is challenging me for the position. Since, I haven’t had to campaign before, it’s like learning another skill set on what it takes to explain what you do and why people should vote for you to continue doing it,” she said. I wanted to know if judges sometimes bring their personal or political views to the courtroom. “You would hope that you wouldn’t have bias or prejudice, just like a jury shouldn’t. For example, if you’re sitting out there waiting to be selected for a jury, you may have biases that make you unfit to sit in judgment of others. Hopefully, the vetting process determines that. The same applies to judges.
“During a jury trial, I’m listening to the arguments and applying the law to the proceedings and to the objections from counsel. My job includes ruling correctly on the objections and has nothing to do with emotions. If the trial goes against the defense, and my rulings on objections are questioned, it could lead to an appeal,” she said. How about a judge’s discretion in sentencing? “Only when you go to sentencing do you get to know about priors. Although there could be two identical offenses, one individual may have never committed an offense before, or has never shown remorse. Another person may be a career criminal, and doesn’t care if he goes to prison or not. For him it doesn’t matter because it’s a warm place to sleep at night, as opposed to the person who is devastated by his action.”
Judge Barnes has a record of commitment that would be envied by the staunchest jurist. “I really feel like I have faithfully served Denton County for 28 years. I’ve not had clients grieve against me, and, as a judge, no one has filed any grievances against me. I have truly been a good lawyer, and tried to be a good lawyer for 28 years, whether on the bench or not. I don’t enter the courtroom with an agenda, and I do my own research on decisions,” she said proudly. On a personal note, I was thoroughly impressed by the humility I observed in Judge Barnes. To be a judge is an awesome responsibility, requiring a level of dignity and maturity that keeps one’s ego and personal views out of the equation. Margaret Barnes appears to fit that description with ease.