Continuing the series of articles on Wise County elected officials. This is on James Stainton and is reprinted with permission from Bridgeport Index.
Wise County Attorney10/2016
by Debi Porter
• Represents the state in prosecuting misdemeanor criminal cases.
• Works with law enforcement officers in the investigation of criminal cases.
• Provides legal advice to the Commissioners Court and to other elected officials.
• Brings civil enforcement actions on behalf of the state or county.
James Stainton, Wise County Attorney, has served since 2009 and is passionate about the work he does. He stated that many people see ‘county attorney’ and think the office is for individual citizens, but the office works for the county government.
The county attorney is an elected position that is primarily responsible for the prosecution of misdemeanor level criminal offenses; for example first offense DWI or marijuana, small amounts of theft, first offense domestic violence and things of that nature. Secondarily, the office handles the county’s legal work statutorily.
Wise County is unique in the level that it operates with contracts and memorandums of understanding. The fact that the county is bordered on three sides by large counties makes it more practical to have an attorney that works with the county judge and commissioner’s court on strictly those issues. Wise County is one of the few counties that have a separate attorney, Thomas ___ that fills that position; most counties contract that type of work out at a huge expense. “Judge McElhaney made a good decision when I took office in 2009 to go ahead and create that position, because it is more practical and cost effective. Whereas my job is more litigation and legal based,” stated Mr. Stainton.
One of the things Mr. Stainton handles is inmate litigation. “We have had inmates sue the sheriff before. It happens. They want out of jail, they sue everybody. Inmate litigation is very common. So our Sheriff’s office gets sued for unbelievable things, such as they don’t like the kind of food they are getting or they don’t get enough TV. Seriously we get that stuff, but the sheriff has to have somebody to respond to that. Instead of farming that out like we did many years ago and hiring outside lawyers to handle that at a significant cost, when I took office in 2009 I said I would do it. I had the background that I felt confident that I could do things like legal conflict, summary judgement, discovery, mediation; those were things I had done for eight years in private practice. We do farm out somethings when it gets into real serious litigation. We have insurance through the Texas Association of Counties and they have lawyers that we work with for litigation where I would have to shut down my office for a period of time or where it is so big I can’t do my other jobs,” remarked Stainton.
A subset of the prosecutor job includes misdemeanor hot checks (which is under $2,500.00); “We don’t get that many hot checks anymore because people have debit cards or a credit card linked to their checking account. We still get more than you would expect.”
Also included are all the protective orders for domestic violence victims and all mental commitments for the county go through the C.A.’s office. “This is a pretty busy business. We work with law enforcement agencies because they are the ones that come in contact with people that have some mental difficulties or a mental health diagnosis, or a person is off their meds or on their meds; law enforcement deals with them face to face. Law enforcement has to have extensive training each year in mental health. Those people need help. Many years ago we treated them like criminals, you can’t really do that. There are people out there that have legitimate problems. They aren’t bad people, they aren’t evil, and many were born with the problem. Some have burned out there brain with dope and that is a choice they made, but they still need help. In this office, because of where I worked before I have more of an understanding since I had represented defendants who had mental health problems. I’ve also had extensive training in different legal courses. It is not a real problem in Wise County, but we do have a sizable number of mental health cases. We probably do three or four a week. They are people, they live in our community if they get on their meds and work the program they can become a productive part of our society,” remarked Stainton.
“I try to always be available, to do the job the way it needs to be done in a growing county such as ours you have to take those middle of the night calls. I am not one to do things half way,” stated Stainton.
Mr. Stainton stated that the Wise County Attorney’s office operates pretty lean for the case load that is handled there. The office handles almost 2000 A and B misdemeanor cases per year. This number does not count hot checks, protective orders or mental commitments, or the fact that they prosecute in all four justice of the peace courts. The attorneys do the all intake personally. “That is pretty busy. Most counties have four or five lawyers. We manage to handle twice the cases with half the people. We get it done and still manage to have fun. I have a great crew. Most of my crew was here before me. The staff consists of two lawyers (including myself), two investigators and five support staff,” explained Mr. Stainton. Investigators within the county attorney’s office pursue information or contact a witness or gain additional evidence after the case has gone to the attorney’s office. Both of the investigators come from a law enforcement background and have extensive experience. They serve warrants among other duties and it helps the system keep moving rather than having to wait for other law enforcement departments.
Other positions include: A victim co-coordinator that handles all of the domestic violence victims and other victims of crime such as theft. “I have spoken at prosecutors conferences mainly about emergency protective orders for domestic violence victims. I did some forms on emergency protective orders that are used in many counties. All of the departments use one form now and the streamlining makes it much easier for everybody to understand. It is better for victims.”
One person does intake, according to Mr. Stainton, it is a thankless job but it has to be done. Everyone is cross-trained to do it, but one person does it primarily.
Another person handles the mental commitments. “Sylvia has been here for years and is really good with all the law and statutes. She helps me mentally to ‘get it right’”
And one person handles all the hot checks and that type thing. “It is a big team effort. It is funny that we don’t have any more people now than we did in 2007, but yet we are handling five times the cases,” stated Stainton.
“We collect a ton of hot check money for local merchants for restitution. Since I came into this office we have collected around $850,000. It is more volume than large numbers. If it is a hundred bucks a wack it doesn’t take a lot to get to that number and the majority of them are ‘oops’, certainly not intentional.”
“The good side of this office is that we are on the ‘green side’ of the money. People are here, we put them on probation, fines, fees, court costs, restitution, and things of that nature. We are generally on the generating side of money, but there comes a point where there are so many cases that other things start to suffer because you simply don’t have enough people. Our county is not getting smaller criminally or civilly and protective orders and mental cases do not go down even if the county has a lean year. That is the only issue we are facing now and I have addressed it with the judge and we will make the best of the situation,” expressed Stainton.
When asked why he switched from private practice to county attorney, Mr. Stainton replied “I think my previous office manager (retired) said it best when I came into office, ‘we up here have always know you were a prosecutor at heart’. She spotted it. I had worked up here and tried cases and defended people and I did my job, but inside I am a law and order guy. That is what is inside me. Overall, I believe there was an opportunity to help my county, because it is my county. I grew up here. I played football here, I got my education here, and I know the people here. It has been my home since I was a little kid. I felt like I had an opportunity to do more than in private practice.”
“I believe that the only way our system works is if we have a fight. We have people on both sides that are fighting and doing their best on both sides. Both sides are prepared and however it comes out the system worked. That is the only way it works.”
“I don’t like criminals and it is really not that hard to violate the law. Our entire penal code is less than ½ inch thick in the book. You asked me why I am a prosecutor, I like to fix things. I love to go in when someone like the sheriff or auditor has a problem and I can fix it and find a solution. That is what is in my heart. I tell people I am not afraid to loss. I trust the system and my preparedness and my people. I trust the facts. That is the way I run the whole office.”
Mr. Stainton graduated from Boyd high school in 1992 and lives there now. He went to the University of Texas at Austin and graduated there in 1997. He started Baylor Law School in the spring of 1998 and graduated in the spring of 2000. He got married on July 31, 1999 and had been together since 1994. “We survived law school together. Anybody who is married and went to law school understands that,” stated Stainton. He had an opportunity with a small law firm in Wise County and came back home. He worked there for eight years and gained a lot of trial experience while there. “I have this wonderful wealth of experience and it benefits me every day,” said Stainton. He has three children, two boys and a girl. His father is an eye surgeon in Arkansas and he loves to go and duck hunt with him. His mother lives in Azle on the lake. “It’s nice having her close and spending time with her,” He has a younger brother who lives in Ft. Worth. “My family hunts a lot. This weekend is the opening of bow season and my oldest is excited about that. We pig hunt a lot.”