When he first became the justice of the peace for Precinct 4 in Taylor County, Frank Cleveland, 72, found an aspect of his new job a bit more challenging than he had anticipated.
It wasn’t the duties.
It was the termites.
And no, that’s no metaphor about parasitic pests eating away at him. It’s about actual, factual, wood-devouring bugs.
Cleveland, who is retiring, did all his own court clerk duties during his first 13 years in his JP position. His office was a used portable building without a courtroom.
He used a nearby community center for any court proceedings.
Precinct 4 Commissioner Chuck Statler remembered that Cleveland, who had been in office only a couple of weeks, called in 1999 to ask him to come to Lawn, where Cleveland had his office.
Statler wanted to know why.
“He said, ‘Well, I don’t have a termite problem anymore,’” Statler remembered.
Statler told Cleveland that was good, assuming it was.
“Yeah, the fire ants got ‘em,” the judge reportedly said in response.
“I went down and looked at it and found out that the building the JP was working out of had just been pretty much infested and had to be destroyed,” Statler said.
The judge’s subsequent digs still had few bugs in the system.
Those were located in a small part of the unheated, un-air-conditioned community library.
Cleveland stayed there for 13 months while a new building was constructed.
Now, the court’s location on Main Street is a “major asset for our community and for Taylor County,” he said.
And, Statler noted, it’s all metal.
Eat that, termites.
Man for the job
There are five JPs in the county, all with about the same duties, Cleveland said.
“We do criminal work with anything that’s a fine-able offense,” he said. “Drunk in public or disorderly conducts, small thefts. We do juvenile cases. We do civil lawsuits — anything under $20,000 is filed in JP court. We do all the death investigations that are unattended.”
Most people don’t realize there’s quite as much “variety” in the work, Cleveland said.
“But it’s pretty involved,” he said. “And I’ve enjoyed it.”
Cleveland brought to the judge’s office an extensive background in law enforcement.
He served for 25 years as an officer of the Abilene Police Department, assigned to vice, narcotics and the organized crime division.
For 10 years, he was commander of the West Central Texas Interlocal Crime Task Force, serving under the governor’s office.
That entity covered 15 counties with a focus on illegal drugs and violent crimes.
In September 1997, he was presented with the Extraordinary Service Medal by the office of the Governor’s Criminal Justice Division for his service with the Texas Narcotics Control Program.
Change of plans
A “bad heart attack” prompted him to get out of law enforcement just about the time the previous Precinct 4 JP retired.
“So I ran for this position and got it,” Cleveland said.
It was certainly different than drug labs and smugglers.
Working in narcotics was a challenge every day, though it’s “not like it is on TV,” he said.
“But it was a challenge every day, and so is this because every case is different,” Cleveland said.
One of the earliest challenges in his job as JP, he said, was tamping down some of his “police mindset,.”
“My theory was yeah, he’s guilty or I wouldn’t have arrested him,” he said.
“But you’ve got to separate that mindset now because you’re a neutral body, and you’ve got to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt until that evidence is proven to show the guilt.”
From dangerous dog cases to more common fare, there’s not nearly as much direct investigation.
“I let (law enforcement) do the investigation and bring it to me now,” Cleveland said.
But his career has helped him “tremendously,” he said, as far as the background needed to be a judge, especially when it comes to probable cause and other aspects of how things work on the streets.
“It puts me in a better position to know, first of all, whether that officer, based on what they tell me, did have probable cause,” he said.
Similarly, something as simple as having worked on patrol helps him understand issues such as traffic violations and how radar works.
He’s got the tools
All that knowledge provides him with tools he can then translate directly into courtroom understanding, Cleveland said.
“I think I’m probably, as a judge, more critical,” he said. “I don’t mean in a bad way, but I can critique a law enforcement officer’s method of doing things because I know what he’s supposed to do. The police have rules to play by. The criminals don’t.”
He joked that he would likely be a great juror for the defense in a trial because he “know(s) what to watch for, if anything.”
Fortunately, Cleveland said he only has run across two officers all throughout his work life who were “problems.”
“They got removed real quickly,” he said. “We have a lot of great officers in this county, and it’s been a pleasure working with every one of them on every level that I’ve worked at. They’re good people. We don’t have a problem that a lot of the big cities have as far as relationships.”
Looking forward to retirement, Cleveland said he plans to put in a lot of work at his 40-acre place, located about seven miles from Lawn.
He also hopes to get some fishing in on the coast, along with a cruise and other travel.
Termite travails aside, Cleveland has been excellent at his job, Statler said.
“I have a lot of respect for him,” he said. “His room during his retirement was filled with peace officers from just about every level.”
And among his fellow JPs, Cleveland has the unofficial title of “Chief Justice,” Statler said.
“That goes to the longest-serving JP,” he said, a title Cleveland earned when former Precinct 1, Place 2 Judge A.L. Deatherage announced his retirement.
His tenure, and his accumulated understanding, has made him well liked, Statler said — and arguably, earned him that distinction.
“With his wisdom and experience, Frank deserves any accolades, whether tongue-in-cheek or respectful, because he’s done the job and he’s done it well,” he said.
Brian Bethel covers city and county government and general news for the Abilene Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.