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Imagine there are no lawyers. It’s easy if you try. No litigation to bother us. Above us only sky. If the late John Lennon were a tort reformer, his vision of heaven no doubt would be Loving County. With a population of 67 souls, it’s the least populated county in Texas, and some say, the entire United States. Loving County is famous for what it doesn’t have. There are no active schools, no movie theaters and no grocery stores — it’s a 50-mile round trip to buy a loaf of bread. And not one of its residents holds a law degree. Although the tallest building and focal point of the county seat of Mentone is the two-story Loving County Courthouse, lawyers rarely cross its threshold. Trials are near historic events here. Although they had two of them last year, no one can remember a trial before then. Yet in this wide-open far West Texas desert locale, where rattlesnakes outnumber people, the fact that suit-clad men and women who carry briefcases for a living are a non-existent species is not necessarily a bad thing, residents say. “Well, goodness,” says Billy Hopper, Loving County’s chief deputy sheriff, “if you’ve got to have rattlesnakes or lawyers, which one would you have?” Nevertheless, the Loving County Courthouse seems to run fine without them. The courthouse sits on top of the rocky soil of the Permian Basin. From the courthouse steps, one can see for miles across the flat, treeless, scrub brush-filled terrain. In addition to the courthouse, downtown Mentone features a post office, a cafe, a gas station, an unused school building and a smattering of small houses. But most visitors to Loving County are more interested in what’s underneath the soil rather than what’s on top of it. On a daily basis, the most common visitors to the courthouse are “landmen” — people who research deed and title records for information about who owns various plots of land across Loving County’s 671 square miles. Deep underneath the county’s topography are hidden pockets of oil and gas. For decades, oil and gas leases have provided Loving County with its main source of income. An oil boom in the 1970s even allowed enough taxable income to put marble on the floors and walls of the courthouse. And while the population of the county is hardly on the rise, the few elected officials who inhabit the Loving County Courthouse are dedicated to keeping its doors open. In 1897, the county was disorganized. It was later attached to nearby Reeves County, according to Texas historians. Loving County citizens responded, making the reorganization official by building the tan brick courthouse in 1935. And current county officials want to make sure the government stays organized. “We’re here to keep the courthouse running, because we want to keep the county intact,” says Loving County treasurer Ann Blair, while giving a tour of the courthouse’s upstairs courtroom. On the far wall of the courtroom are pictures of past Loving County officials dating back 70 years. And the top posts in county government seem to be passed down between members of four families who’ve lived in these parts for decades. For example, Blair’s mother, Edna Reed Clayton, served as Loving County sheriff from 1945 until 1947. Clayton was the first elected female sheriff in Texas. “When you get to small places, families keep the courthouses running,” Blair says. “And families stay together.” And you never know when you’re going to need a courthouse for a trial. LITIGATION, SUCH AS IT IS November and December of 2003 were busy months inside the courthouse — it held two civil trials. They were big events for 143rd District Judge Bob Parks, who says the jury trials were the first in Loving County tried to a verdict since the creation of the 143rd District Court in 1955. Parks, who is based in Monahans and whose jurisdiction also includes Reeves and Ward counties, says the trials created quite an interesting situation for Loving County. Achieving a 60-person venire panel for the trials — which included a workers’ compensation appeal and a tort case involving damage to a gas well — required the presence of the county’s entire population. Because jury service virtually shuts down the economic livelihood of Loving County, past 143rd District Court judges have automatically transferred jury trials to adjacent counties. But Parks, who’s been judge of the 143rd since 1986, believes Loving County should handle its own jury trials. “I believe a county has a duty to perform those, even though I realize that it is an imposition,” Parks says. And in what may be a surprise to anyone who’s not familiar with the county, the recent jury pool was drawn from well more than 100 people who either have a driver’s license or voter registration card in Loving County. “A significant number of people claimed their domicile in Loving County who may actually sleep on a day-to-day basis in another county,” Parks says. It’s no secret that some family members of Loving County residents who live elsewhere may register to vote in the county to try to ensure their kinfolk are elected to public office, locals claim. People own land in the county and live elsewhere, but still vote in Loving County. During jury selection in one of the trials, those in the courtroom burst into laughter when an attorney asked for a show of hands of people who were not related to any of their fellow venire members. Only two people raised their hands, according to jurors who attended. Loving County sheriff Richard Putnam and his lone deputy, Billy Hopper, were called for jury service during the trials, Parks says. Parks dismissed Putnam so he could serve as the court’s bailiff. And Regena Derrick and her husband Charles, owners of the Boot Track Cafe, were called. But Parks dismissed Charles so someone could serve lunch to the judge and jurors. “When Judge Parks is out here, he’s going to have his cheeseburger,” Regena Derrick says. IT’S ALL RELATIVE Between their morning coffee and cigarettes inside their six-table cafe, the Derricks contemplate whether a criminal-defense lawyer could make a living in Loving County. “Yeah,” Charles Derrick says. “If he hung out in here.” That’s because Loving County’s only criminal incident of any consequence occurred in the cafe over the summer. In July, Regena Derrick asked a 32-year-old man to watch his language after he began cursing, Charles Derrick says. The man became angry, threatened Regena, and with a metal bar smashed one of the cafe’s side windows and a window in Regena’s Lincoln Continental that was parked nearby, Charles Derrick alleges. The man later was charged with two counts of misdemeanor vandalism, Charles Derrick says. He also was charged with assault, a charge bumped up to a state jail felony because Regena Derrick is a public official — she’s Loving County’s justice of the peace. In Loving County, about a third of the residents are either employees of the county or are elected officials. The prospect of trying the man on the misdemeanor charges shows how family connections make it difficult to try some cases in Loving County. County Judge Don Creager, who normally hears misdemeanor cases as Loving County’s constitutional county judge, likely will have to recuse himself from the case because Derrick is his stepdaughter. Creager could transfer the case to a JP. But the county’s only JP is also the complainant. “The system will work,” Charles Derrick says. “I don’t know how, but it will.” Randy Reynolds, the Pecos-based district attorney for Loving, Reeves and Ward counties, handles felony cases. Michael Fostel, a Kermit attorney who serves as Loving County’s legal adviser, prosecutes misdemeanor cases. And when people arrested in Loving County need defense attorneys, it has no trouble finding qualified lawyers in Pecos, Odessa or Kermit who are willing to take the cases, Parks says. But the recent felony charge presents a larger problem in Loving County. Unlike the misdemeanor charges, the felony charge will have to be presented to a grand jury if the man is indicted. And while it may be difficult to seat a 12-member jury in Loving County, it’s even harder to gather a 12-member grand jury because of a state law that prohibits close family relatives from serving together on a grand jury. In the mid-1990s, then-state Sen. John Montford, D-Lubbock, sponsored and passed a grand jury bill that tightened restrictions regarding who could serve on a grand jury, including the requirement that no two members could be closely related. “I wrote Sen. Montford saying, “Congratulations. You’ve eliminated felony crime in Loving County,’” Parks says. The last time Parks impaneled a grand jury in Loving County was 1995 when the county’s former treasurer and auditor were charged with fraud. “I called 50 people,” Parks says. “I had exactly 12 left.” Both of those officials eventually waived indictment, pleaded guilty to misappropriating public funds and paid restitution, according to court records. Interestingly, Parks entered an order in that criminal case in 1999 to clear up some confusion about the district court case numbers. Apparently the two defendants had the same case number. “The case was filed in July 1995, and was supposedly the 31st [criminal] case in numerical sequence since Loving County was organized for the second time in 1931,” Parks wrote, referring to one of the cases. He later assigned one of the cases a “33″ number to clear things up. The civil docket in Loving County has been much more active than the criminal docket. There have been 726 civil cases filed in district court since 1931. Most of those cases have involved car accidents occurring on Texas 302, which cuts through the middle of the county, or disputes between oil and gas business owners. The low case count makes recordkeeping easy for Beverly Hanson, who serves as Loving County’s district and county clerk. It only takes four metal, double-row filing cabinets to store all the county’s district court files dating back more than 30 years. As for Loving County’s pending civil caseload? That’s simple, Hanson says. It’s Jones v. Hill, a child custody matter and the county’s only active district court case. It is also Loving County’s 727th civil district case since 1931. Nothing makes Hanson laugh harder than when someone mistakenly calls her office in the county seat of Mentone and says: “I need to check on case 103046.” “And I say, ‘Whoa!’” Hanson says. “‘Are you calling for Mentone?’”

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