From the Country to the Courtroom
When COVID-19 shut down America in 2020, the Honorable John Tidwell, Texas 202nd District Court Judge, adapted and continued to administer justice in his court. First elected in 2016, he knew the need to press forward.
“The way we are set up in Bowie County for the District level, I have half of all the criminal, civil and family law cases,” explained Judge Tidwell. In 2020, he received 800 cases. Despite the pandemic, he continued to work. The Bowie County District Judges tried more cases March through November 2020 than any county in the State of Texas. “Houston, Austin, Dallas, Fort Worth… no one tried more cases than we did in Bowie County,” said Judge Tidwell. “We just kept finding ways to do it.”
In March 2020, every District Judge in Texas had a Zoom video conferencing license purchased for them. “I didn’t even know what Zoom was,” confessed Judge Tidwell, “and all of a sudden, they gave us a week to learn. I’m elected to work, so that’s what we did.” “But Zoom is not as respectful sometimes,” he acknowledged. “I don’t have funny events in most of my courts, but I have with Zoom. I had a lady sitting in her car smoking a cigarette in court on Zoom, and I said, for the first time ever in my history of being a judge, ‘Please no smoking in court.’ All of a sudden, she looks at me and puts her cigarette down out of view, but smoke keeps coming up around her face. You’re just like, ‘She doesn’t get it!’”
Judge Tidwell also successfully held socially distanced trials at alternate locations. “Last fall, I tried a sexual assault case in the New Boston High School Auditorium on the stage. One of my friends texted me when he saw a picture of it in the paper and said it looked like a high school production of To Kill a Mockingbird. Hopefully, we will get to where we can be back in the jury box.”
One of Judge Tidwell’s goals for this year is to resume trials at the Bowie County Courthouse with a full jury because “The greatest thing about America is the jury system,” Judge Tidwell stated. “This is where your peers determine what happens to you. We have people of all age groups, economic statuses, ethnic backgrounds; it doesn’t matter. They get to decide. If I’m going to make somebody do something, I have to make sure that they are safe and comfortable.” When Judge Tidwell was elected, he set the precedent of standing, along with the rest of the courtroom, for the jurors as they entered, showing his admiration and respect for citizens who report for jury duty.
The Judge needs a jury of what he called “twelve fact-finders,” and strong prosecutors because of the intense nature of his caseload. “Predominantly, I’m criminal law heavy,” said Judge Tidwell. “That’s why you’ll read about me in the paper or my prosecutors, Kelley Crisp and Lauren Richards. They are assigned to my courtroom. We constantly deal with very difficult cases. The majority are sexual assault of children, murder cases and aggravated assault. They are the ugliest of the ugly.”
When asked what helps him get through the “ugliest of the ugly” cases, he reflected on the closure families receive and the power of victim impact statements at the end of the trial. “There is a thing called victim impact statements in criminal cases,” Judge Tidwell said. “At the end of the case, the victims can speak to the defendant and explain the impact it had on them.” In one particular case in his court, a young man in his 20s got behind the wheel while taking Xanax and caused the death of a woman. “So first, the daughter of the deceased got up and said to him, ‘You took away my best friend. Because of you, my children will never get to meet their grandmother.’ And then the husband of the deceased got up and said, ‘Because of you, I sleep alone at night and will forever.’ And so, you see the impact that the people have in my cases,” the Judge explained.
“I’ve had sexual assault cases where I sentenced somebody to 50 years or 60 years. The women who were children at the time they were sexually assaulted would run to each other and hug each other. You can’t call it joy, but you can call it closure. That’s something so many people need. We help them get to a place of closure.”
Everyone in his courtroom is treated equally and with respect. Kelley Crisp was assigned to Judge Tidwell’s court after her promotion to First Assistant District Attorney in January 2019. According to Crisp, “Being in front of him in the 202nd District Court is an honor. Judge Tidwell has the ideal temperament for his position. He is calm and collected, and he’s steadfast in his dedication to justice and the equal treatment of everyone. A court date does not go by where the families of the defendant and the victim don’t tell him ‘thank you’ because he does not show favoritism, and he is so respectful of everyone involved. He realizes how hard the cases are for both sides, especially their families.”
After a successful first term, Judge Tidwell was re-elected in November 2020.
According to the Bowie County Elections Office, he won the highest popular vote in the county. “When I campaigned, I made one promise,” said Judge Tidwell. “I would treat anybody who came in front of me with dignity and respect, no matter their stature in life or what attorney they had with them. Litigation is volatile within itself. When you live in a world of chaos, you have to be neutral and comforting. I may rule against you, but I’m not going to take it out on you. Every day I do something that affects people for the rest of their lives. I take that into consideration, and that’s my motivation: to try and do it right.”
His careful consideration of each case is just one reason Judge Tidwell is respected in his courtroom. “He has a very highly developed sense of justice and always does the right thing even when it is not easy,” said John Mercy of Mercy Carter, LLP. “His upbringing in the west end of Bowie County taught him basic values that are important to administering justice.”
Judge Tidwell grew up in DeKalb, Texas, and received his Bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M University in College Station, along with his wife, Cathy. “We both went to A&M but never dated,” said the Judge. “I came back to Texarkana as an Ag Teacher for Texas High School. The school secretary knew when Cathy was going to be signing her contract at the superintendent’s office and arranged for me to go and bump into Cathy to ask her out. This June, we will have 38 years of marriage.”
In 1984, when Texas slashed the budgets for vocational education, Judge Tidwell had a decision to make: move to a smaller school with an Ag program or do something else. “That’s when I got the idea to go to law school,” he said.
Judge Tidwell attended South Texas College of Law from 1985 to 1988, around the same time that the Bowie County Courthouse was constructed. “Being from DeKalb, I would drive on I-30 past here going to Texarkana with my wife. I would always tap her and say, ‘One day, I’m going to be a judge there.’ I practiced law for almost 30 years and then went for the judgeship.” During his three decades of practicing law, and now as the 202nd District Court Judge, his steadfast character and reputation have made him a respected leader among the local Bar. “Throughout my experience with Judge Tidwell, as both an attorney and a judge, he has been consistent in his careful approach to the application of the law and his genuine desire to seek justice,” said Attorney David Glass of Smith Weber, LLP. “Attributes of a good judge include legal knowledge, compassion, judicial temperament, integrity and character, and Judge Tidwell exemplifies these traits.”
Outside the courthouse, Judge Tidwell enjoys spending time with Cathy, their son, Jackson, and daughter, Jordan, both graduates of Oklahoma State University. “The main thing I wanted my children to learn was to be kind and respectful and always be an encouragement to people,” said Judge Tidwell. “Our goal as a family is to have fun. We are a Disney family. We find things to enjoy together… anything where laughter’s involved.”
Staying true to his agricultural roots, Judge Tidwell plants a garden each year and is building a raised bed garden this spring for Jackson and his wife, Amelie. The couple is expecting their first child, and Judge Tidwell’s first grandchild, in September 2021.
When he is not trying a case in court, digging in his garden, or at Disney World with his family, you can find Judge Tidwell on the back of a motorcycle for “wind therapy,” as he calls it. “I don’t look like a motorcyclist,” Judge Tidwell admitted. “It’s something to distract my mind, and I will get out and go.” In 2016, he rode 3,000 miles round trip to Sturgis, South Dakota, after he won his first election as the 202nd District Court Judge.
In a position like Judge Tidwell’s, compassion and integrity are vital components to achieving real justice. He is the person for this role since these are the hallmark characteristics that define him. Add to that his love of fun and adventure and his green thumb, and you find a man who is truly growing more than a garden. He is sowing a legacy of honor that is sure to reap rewards for not just his family, but for Bowie County and beyond.