Aug. 4—Five Republican candidates hoping to gain the 249th District Court seat must now wait on the Republican Executive Committee's decision tentatively scheduled for Aug. 20 at the Guinn Justice Center in Cleburne.
All five discussed their qualifications for the job and plans if chosen during a Tuesday candidate forum at the Cleburne Conference Center hosted by the Johnson County Republican Party.
Incumbent 249th District Judge Wayne Bridewell ran unopposed earlier this year in the Republican Primary. The victory assured Bridewell another term given that no Democratic opponent filed to compete in November's general election.
Bridewell, who has served 31 years as the 249th judge, withdrew his name from the ballot in June citing health issues. Bridewell's withdrawal left the Republican parties of Johnson and Somervell counties — the 249th District Court covers both counties — in charge of selecting a replacement candidate for November's ballot.
A committee consisting of the party and precinct chairs of both counties will vote on Bridewell's replacement.
An interview committee last week interviewed the candidates.
"Tonight is a time just to let the candidates speak to you without asking questions," Johnson County Republican Party Chairwoman Robin Wilson told audience members during Tuesday's forum.
Attendees were, however, encouraged to visit with candidates and precinct chairs before and after the forum.
The candidates include area attorneys Keith Bradley and Tiffany Strother, assistant county attorneys Whitney Clotfelter and Stu Madison and Cleburne Municipal Judge Michael Kurmes.
A sixth candidate, Burleson attorney Kimberly Naylor, withdrew her name before Tuesday's forum.
The Aug. 20 vote on the new judge, should that date hold, will take place at 9 a.m. At the Guinn Justice Center and will be open to the public.
Wilson called the candidates to the podium in no particular order.
Madison has served as chief prosecutor of the Johnson County Attorney's Office for 27 years. Madison described the types of cases heard in district and county court at law courts and added that he is experienced in all such cases.
"I've had 125 criminal jury trials in Johnson County," Madison said. "Of which I was first chair where you're in charge of the jury."
Madison asked the precinct chairs present whether they want someone with experience in courtroom trials, warrants and evidence hearings.
"I'm certain that I've had more criminal jury trial experience in Johnson County than all my other candidates combined," Madison said.
Madison spoke of a judge's need for fairness and a sense of justice.
"Who do you want deciding what the punishment should be for first-time offenders in Johnson and Somervell counties," Madison said. "Who do you want deciding punishment for violent offenders when their victims and their victim's families are waiting for justice and closure?"
Madison voiced his support for the Boy Scouts of America, Teen Court, family and Texas A&M University.
Strother thanked the voting committee for their work to ensure that the integrity of the 249th Court remains protected for many years to come.
Being a judge has been a lifelong dream, Strother said.
"My introduction to the legal system started when I was 5," Strother said.
Strother said she was adopted and remembers being in a courtroom confused and scared.
"The judge was so kind and benevolent in explaining the process to me," Strother said. "I remember thinking to myself what an amazing job and told my mother, when we left the courtroom, 'That's what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be just like that man and help other families.'"
A first-generation college graduate in her family, Strother went on to establish a law firm with her mother-in-law in 2012.
"I practice law everyday," Strother said. "I'm a trial lawyer meaning I'm in court everyday."
Strother said she too has had experience with all forms of law dealt with by the district court and participated in thousands of cases and hearings.
Strother serves on the board of Next Step Women's Center, a Burleson crisis pregnancy center as well as the board of Crazy8 Ministries. She served four years as president of the Johnson County Republican Women's Club and two as a municipal judge for Joshua and is the only attorney on the Council for Sex Offender Treatment Program, a post Gov. Greg Abbott appointed her to in 2020.
With 17 defendants awaiting murder trials and the court backlogged, a judge who can hit the ground running is needed, Strother said.
Kurmes thanked the selection committee as well.
"This is probably the only time in our lives we're going to get to see this process," Kurmes said. "Thank you for volunteering and giving of yourselves."
In addition to serving as Cleburne's municipal court judge, Kurmes maintains a private practice focused on civil, criminal and family law in Burleson.
Kurmes also spoke of the need for a judge to exercise fairness.
"The criminal law process is important because it makes us feel safe, feel protected where we're living," Kurmes said. It's not okay to treat everyone with the same big hammer though. There is a difference between someone who is truly evil and a first-time offender who has made a mistake and it's important that a judge knows that."
His experience as a municipal judge, Kurmes said, lends him such knowledge.
Knowledge in civil and family law is equally important, Kurmes said, as is the willingness to tackle a court that is severely backlogged docket wise.
Kurmes said neither he nor the Johnson County District Attorney's Office fear taking on trials.
"You look at Tolerant County, Tarrant County, who's just going to give a slap on the wrist, who is not going to do anything," Kurmes said. "Who is going to give a child molester probation. That's the great thing about our county. We are ready to have a trial."
Clotfelter cited her nearly 20 years experience in the Johnson County Attorney's Office and discussed her plan to address the 249th Court's backlog.
"I started planning to be an attorney when I was 10," Clotfelter said. "My mom is a school teacher and my dad is a carpet salesman. So they have no idea where that idea came from and honestly, I don't know either except that I had a heart for helping people and, ever since I've gone to law school, that's what I've been doing. Not long after that, God put the desire in my heart to be a judge."
In addition to dealing with all matters of law addressed by the district court, Clotfelter is licensed in the Northern District of Texas and board certified in child welfare law.
"Prior to having been board certified, I served on the advisory committee to create that area board certification for three years," Clotfelter said. "It was a long time coming and I'm proud to be specialized in that area. I'm also qualified as a mediator since 2000 and have my guardian ad litem certification."
Clotfelter said she would address the court's backlog through a combination of mediation and alternative dispute resolution options as well at trial and other traditional legal options.
Through her child welfare law experience, Clotfelter said she has dealt with all levels of burdens of proof available in our legal system and is uniquely qualified to understand the relationship between child welfare cases and any related criminal cases.
Clotfelter cited her appellate experience, continuing education and participation on various legal issues through numerous conferences and her involvement in local Republican politics. Clotfelter is the current JCRW president among other things.
Bradley cited local roots and legal experience.
"I was born and raised here," Bradley said. "Except for my time in college and the Navy I've been here all my life."
Bradley said he brings 30 years of practicing law to the table including stints as a JAG officer in the U.S. Navy in addition to other legal and law enforcement posts he held while in the military.
"Since I came out of the Navy in 1996, I came back to practice law with my father who was a lawyer here from 1963 until his retirement in 2001," Bradley said. "I've practiced civil, criminal and family law extensively in all sectors."
Bradley said he's licensed to practice law in Oklahoma, Kansas and Pennsylvania as well as Texas and has tried cases in 61 counties of those states.
Those cases run from capital murder death penalty cases all the way down and include more than 100 cases at the appellate level, Bradley said.
"As for Republican Party politics, my parents were staunch Republicans when that was not popular in this county at all," Bradley said.
His father, Bradley said, attended the Republican National Conventions in 1972 and '76. Bradley himself worked on several Republican presidential campaigns including Donald Trump's in 2020.