With 244th District Judge James Rush retiring after 10 years on the bench, Ector County voters will have to choose one of three candidates running in March’s Republican primary, all of whom tout their years’ of experience.
It’s winner take all as there is no Democrat running. With three candidates there is the possibility of a runoff between the top two candidates following the primary.
Retired Odessa Municipal Court Judge Dennis Jones, 62, former Ector County Attorney Cindy Weir-Nutter, 59, and long-time civil attorney Lori Ruiz-Crutcher, 40, all hope to take the bench to preside over a court that handles criminal and civil matters.
Jones, who was born and raised in Lufkin, first stepped into a courtroom as a child.
“My dad was the county judge in Angelina County for a very long time so I kind of grew up around the courthouse,” Jones said. “My very best friend through high school and later my roommate at college, his father was the one district judge at that time in Angelina County. He and I would rush after class, if they had a good, juicy murder trial or something going on, we’d run after class to watch the last couple hours of testimony.”
Jones obtained a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Steven F. Austin University and spent five years as a police officer in Lufkin before deciding to go to law school. He obtained his law degree from South Texas College of Law in Houston and became licensed in May 1989.
He spent time working as a prosecutor in Angelina County before moving to Odessa in July 2005 to take a job as a prosecutor under Ector County Attorney Cathy Linch. About a year and a half later he was appointed as the Odessa Municipal Court judge, a position he held for more than 12 years.
Since retiring in 2019, Jones has been handling family and criminal defense matters. His long-time dream of becoming a judge rekindled when he heard Rush was retiring.
“It was on a Friday when I found that out and the wheels began turning that weekend,” Jones said. “On Monday I prepared the paperwork and Tuesday I filed.”
Jones believes he’s uniquely qualified to take over Rush’s caseload having worked on both sides of the criminal arena. Plus, he’s got all of those years behind the bench and taken courses at the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada.
“There’d be no learning curve with me, I’d be ready to go Day One,” he said.
If elected, Jones said he would work hard and efficiently. His father always drilled into him the importance of public service and being accountable to taxpayers.
He hopes voters will recognize the value he could bring to the bench.
“I’m not going to run any type of negativity campaign. I hope the voters will see I’m the most qualified candidate and they will vote for me, but I’m not going to say anything bad about my opponents,” Jones said. “I know some people may find that odd, but I’m just not that type of person. I’m not going to run a negative campaign, I’m just going to lay out my qualifications out there and hope the public will vote for me as the most qualified candidate.”
Weir-Nutter moved to Odessa from Midland in the fifth grade. The Permian High School graduate obtained her bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Texas Permian Basin and her law degree from Texas Tech.
She clerked for the late U.S. District Judge Lucius Bunton III before spending time in private practice, handling primarily civil cases, but the occasional criminal defendant. She later went to work in the Ector County District Attorney’s Office prosecuting career criminals and defendants accused of sex crimes and crimes against children.
Weir-Nutter went back into private practice after several years and began representing children and their parents in Child Protection Court. After spending four years as the Ector County Attorney she returned to that type of work in 2013 and handles such matters in nine counties.
In addition to her 31 years as an attorney, Weir-Nutter has also spent 27 years as a mediator.
She has long wanted to be a judge and said her experience makes her an excellent candidate. She’s appeared in federal and state courts, including at the appellate level.
“I have practiced before numerous judges throughout Texas and I’ve observed the type of demeanor and the type of courtroom that promotes the process. Some hinder the process in my opinion and I want to be one that promotes the process,” Weir-Nutter said.
Too many times, she’s seen judges make themselves the center of attention, arrive late, delay rulings and fail to keep up with the ever-changing law, she explained. She’s also seen judges make inconsistent rulings.
“I think lawyers should look forward to coming to my courtroom because they know they’re going to be able to do their job and they know they’re not going to have a judge inserting themselves into the process and taking advantage of a captive audience,” Weir-Nutter said.
If elected, Weir-Nutter said she would encourage parties to resolve the issues amongst themselves whenever possible and to make the most of the parties’ time. She dislikes it when parties have to wait around before taking the stand, for example.
She gets misty-eyed thinking about her late father-in-law, who gave her his judicial robe prior to his death in January 2020 after 21 years on the bench.
“I have a real passion for justice; I have all my life, and the judge guides the process and ensures that the law is followed, that everyone is treated respectfully and that justice is achieved,” she said. “This particular court is special to me because my father-in-law was Judge Joe Connelly and he was a judge in this court…Even before I met my husband he had guided me and was just such a hero of mine. He was a good judge. I think he’d be very proud.”
Although Weir-Nutter lost her position as Ector County Attorney following a highly contentious race, she looks back at that time frame and thinks of it as a “small bump in the road.”
She’d been accused of failing to report employee compensation time to the county and giving out more comp time than county policy allowed. After a months-long investigation by the Texas Attorney General’s Office and the Texas Rangers, an Ector County grand jury absolved her of any criminal activities, choosing instead to criticize county policy in a rare written report.
“I haven’t had anyone actually comment on that. It was all resolved. It was all debunked. I had the opportunity after that to speak with the Republican party, show them documents, show them the truth,” Weir-Nutter said. “I think it was a shame that happened. I think some people, including reporters, got caught up in a story line and I think it’s a shame. I’m grateful the truth came out, the truth always comes out.”
Ruiz-Crutcher is a native of Round Rock. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in English literature from the University of North Texas and her law degree from Texas Tech.
She remembers watching “Law and Order” on TV with her grandfather.
“As a young person I was always fascinated by the legal system and how it worked,” Ruiz-Crutcher said. “I wanted to help people and I thought that would be a very honorable way to help people.”
Prior to moving to Odessa in 2007 to work in the child support division of the Texas Attorney General’s Office, she was a legal assistant in a criminal defense law firm.
She joined the law firm of Atkins, Hollmann, Jones, Peacock, Lewis & Lyon in 2008 and is now a partner.
“I have a general business practice, which involves disputes between business parties, essentially,” she said. “It could be contract disputes, employee/employer disputes. I also practice general business law, assisting clients with their general business needs in terms of any formation, mergers and acquisitions. I also have experience in banking law.”
Although she’s not practiced criminal law, Ruiz-Crutcher said as a legal assistant she helped draft motions and appellate briefs and assisted in trial preparations. However, she also pointed out that new judges have taken the bench in the past with more experience on one side than the other and it’s not hampered them.
“It’s important for our courts to be well-rounded so the fact that I’m not a criminal defense attorney is actually a positive for our judiciary,” Ruiz-Crutcher said. “I think having a business background will be beneficial to our court because I’m able to handle and know business cases, which in turn helps the court move more efficiently.”
She continued, “Being a quick learner I have no doubt I’ll be able to learn criminal law rather quickly so I can merge the two and run the court efficiently.”
She’s been thinking about running for a judgeship for a few years, Ruiz-Crutcher said.
“I think Ector County deserves a well-respected judiciary and when I found out Judge Rush was not going to run for re-election, I thought that I was the best candidate for that position,” she said. “The job of a judge is one of good judgment. I think I possess good judgment. I’m a good attorney, I’m a hard worker.”
Ruiz-Crutcher wants voters to know she understands the importance of being fair, impartial and mindful of people’s time.
“Our citizens deserve that. They deserve for the judges to thoughtfully consider the matters that are presented before them,” she said. “I think it’s important that judges follow the law. They’re not there to legislate from the bench or create the law, the job is to follow the law so I think it’s important for our judges to be conservative in the sense they do just that, they follow the law.”
If elected, she’ll definitely work hard, Ruiz-Crutcher said.
“Professionally I’m in my productive prime and so my intention, if elected, is to work hard, be in this position for the long term and continue to serve the community if they’ll allow me to,” she said.
The last day to register to vote is Jan. 31. Early voting begins Feb. 14 and ends Feb. 25.