Cyndi Wheless says she’s been targeting bullies and fighting for “the underdog” since grade school, if not earlier.
Now judge of the 417th District Court in McKinney — Collin County’s juvenile court — Wheless says she constantly sees the negative consequences of bullying, and she works for change in and out of the courtroom.
Wheless started battling bullies at an early age. At just 3 years old, she recalls thinking it was her duty to protect her younger brother and sister. For example, she says she was in elementary school and living in Connecticut when she stood up to bullies who targeted her younger sister, a warm and nurturing person who was, back then, “unique and very different.”
“She had this little purple car, and she’d just drive it around our neighborhood . . . and kids in the neighborhood would make fun of her,” says Wheless. “I had to beat up or engage in little arguments with people who were picking on her.”
When she was just 10 years old, Wheless says she decided to become a lawyer. Her mother told Wheless she argued well and her motto was “that’s not fair.” Wheless says she wanted to help people.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in government and politics from The University of Texas at Dallas in 1988 and her law degree from Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law in 1991.
From 1991 to 1993 she practiced labor and employment law at Haynes and Boone in Dallas and Fort Worth. For the next three years she was an associate representing clients in general civil and criminal matters at her husband’s law firm, Wheless, Walker & Baxter in Plano.
In 1999, Wheless became a referee for the Collin County Juvenile Board, where she presided over daily detention hearings. Due to a growing population, Collin County in 2003 created a juvenile court, and Gov. Rick Perry appointed Wheless as judge. She assumed the bench in 2004, and she won election to keep the position in 2006.
As a juvenile court judge, Wheless says she sees “frustrating scenarios” where young victims of bullying commit an offense. One elementary student brought a sword to school, and another brought a loaded .357 Magnum.
“A lot of that was driving me to be frustrated that — how does it come to this?” says Wheless, adding: “I didn’t want to sit around doing nothing.”
She reaches out to child defendants in her court with the message that they are not experiencing the best years of their lives, and they will emerge from their struggles better off.
Wheless also visits schools and parent-teacher associations about once a month with an anti-bullying message. She wants adults to understand they must step in and take action to stop bullying. She explains to children they must respect other students regardless of their social status, skin color, their socioeconomic status and other differences.
“I want to go to as many schools as I can and talk to as many children as I can to help them understand this is a very small part of their lives,” says Wheless. “The main living they will do, that will be where the freedom is and the happiness and the ability to be unique.”
Texas Lawyer reporter Angela Morris emailed questions to Wheless about practicing in her courtroom. Here are her answers, edited for style and length.
Judge Cyndi Wheless
417th District Court in McKinney
First elected to bench: 2006
. . .
Texas Lawyer: What would be your most honest warning for your prospective replacement?
417th District Judge Cyndi Wheless: My replacement would do well to always take the long view. That is, stay in touch intellectually with the big picture. The best interest of all children is to be parented by their own parents, if safe. For juvenile delinquency cases, secure detention should be the absolute last choice where possible, while considering the child’s risk to the community. . . .
. . .
TL: After being a judge, how would you change your practice if you were to become a working attorney again?
Wheless: There are so many things I would change if I became a practicing lawyer again. First, I would not be as scared and intimidated by the juries. Jury trials are one of my favorite aspects of my job. Voir dire invariably reinforces my faith in my fellow citizens. People are conscientious, compassionate, careful and respectful about their deliberations. I assumed that everyone wanted out of jury service as a practicing lawyer, so I flew through and doubted myself too much. Also, I would provide the judge with case law on all pivotal points.
TL: When a lawyer adopts an artificial courtroom persona geared towards pleasing a jury, how do you respond?
Wheless: I marvel at the lawyers who are able to adopt a courtroom persona which pleases the jury. I admire that they represent their client to the fullest extent. In fact, the lawyers who can step up their performance to help the jury stay focused, [are] doing the court a favor. So long as they stay within the bounds of the law, it usually helps the jury feel more comfortable. . . .
. . .
TL: What type of lawyer behavior in court makes you maddest?
Wheless: I think lawyers are wonderful people. I think they have a lot of pressure to help people in their most trying times. I’ve been in their shoes, and there is not anything I become personally angry at the lawyers about. One thing I don’t care for is when lawyers argue with each other at counsel table.
TL: What was an unexpected but effective technique you saw an attorney use in your courtroom?
Wheless: One unexpected but effective technique that I saw a lawyer use in my court was when a very seasoned, good criminal-defense lawyer brought up the issue of race. This was during voir dire in a juvenile delinquency case involving the charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child. He handled the issue deftly and with respect to all people.
“Approach the Bench” is a periodic column in Texas Lawyer.
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