written by laura duarte | photos provided by the woodruff family
When asked to list public servants, most think of firefighters, police officers, and other first responders. Indeed, these selfless individuals often see people on their worst days, rightfully garnering awe and gratitude from those they aid. For any metropolis to operate, however, it requires numerous behind-the-scenes professionals who devote themselves to law and order every day. Some such professionals—their roles vital to public safety—necessitate a public election. When this happens, a special bond is forged between voter and elected official, a promise to maintain order and serve others in a capacity few truly grasp.
One such public position is that of Justice of the Peace. Though the title seems familiar enough, many don’t realize the extent of a JP’s responsibility. Presiding over misdemeanor cases and civil matters, Justice courts play an active role in a city’s day-to-day activities, and Wichita Falls has two of them (Wichita County has five). Like most judges, JPs earn their position every few years, and when a good one gets seated, he or she can remain for decades. Just ask Janice Sons, one of Wichita Falls’ JPs for the last 33 years. Until 2019, her counterpart, Mike Little, stayed for 24 years. Thus, when one of these tenured judges retires, it’s a pretty big deal…which is why this publication takes pride in introducing the city’s new Justice of the Peace, Robert Woodruff.
New to the position but not public service, Woodruff spent 18 years as a Wichita Falls Police Officer before running for JP. To fully understand his devotion to community, though, we’ll need to go back further. A Wichita Falls native, Woodruff was actually born in Turkey (his family moved to this area when he was three years old). The youngest of four boys, he caught the tail end of his father’s career in the Air Force, allowing him to stay in one place most of his childhood. A skilled athlete, Woodruff attended Western State in Colorado on a football scholarship before transferring to the University of North Texas and earning a degree in business.
“I’ve always been interested in the justice system. It began in college but peaked when I became a Detective in the police force.” ~ Robert Woodruff
Don’t be fooled by the degree listed on the diploma. With a minor in criminal justice, Woodruff would spend the bulk of his career pursuing anyone outside the law. “I’ve always been interested in the justice system,” Woodruff revealed. “It began in college but peaked when I became a Detective in the police force.” Tasked with handling search and arrest warrants (signed by JPs) as a Detective, he got to know Mike Little well. Also a retired police officer, Little and Woodruff had a lot in common, forging a relationship that would help solidify Woodruff’s already piqued interest in the role of JP. “I knew right away what I wanted,” Woodruff explained. “I said to myself one day, if I get the opportunity, I’m going to try to get that job.”
In January 2019, Woodruff officially took office, settling into a role he’d spent almost five years preparing for and decades dreaming about.
And get it he did…eventually. Before officially tossing his hat in the ring, Woodruff spent two years familiarizing himself with the courthouse and its regular inhabitants. “I visited the courthouse as much as I could,” he said. “Even on my days off, I was up here chatting with clerks. I introduced myself, forged relationships, so by the time I actually took office, it was just like coming back. The only difference was, this time I was the one signing my name on the documents.”
His JP position didn’t come without challenges, though. Running initially in 2014, he lost the election to Little, as the incumbent hadn’t yet decided to retire. This setback didn’t deter Woodruff, however, and he spoke about the first loss in positive terms, admitting his second run came easier because his name was already out there. “I didn’t have to start from zero,” Woodruff said. “It can be tough when the public votes, especially if no one knows you. But I’d already put in the time back in 2014, so that made the second run much smoother.”
In January 2019, Woodruff officially took office, settling into a role he’d spent almost five years preparing for and decades dreaming about. Though the transition felt natural, thanks to his purposeful acquaintanceship with the position, the day-to-day duties still came with reverence. Having seen much of the darker side of human nature thanks to his years as a police officer, he stepped into the role of judge with keen understanding of what he might see and hear in the courtroom.
When asked about the more difficult duties of a JP, he admitted evictions never feel great. He does 60 to 80 of them per month, and “kicking people out of their homes” is not the highlight of his day. Also on the list of challenges are truancy hearings (performed three days a week), inquests (investigations into unintended deaths), and mental commitments (enough said). In all, a JP’s responsibilities include those previously mentioned, small claims cases, property hearings, bond hearings, examining trials, debt claim hearings, arrest and search warrants, class C ticket cases, and repair and remedy hearings. Aside from the heaviness of what he sometimes witnesses, Woodruff remains cautiously optimistic.
He laughs easily, and an easygoing nature belies the seriousness of his profession. Outside the office, he enjoys a quiet, fulfilled life with his wife of seven years, Lisa Woodruff, and they have a bustling family. With four kids between them—she has three grown children from a previous marriage, and he has one who’s still a teenager—they have four grandchildren who range in age from three to six.
Robert & Lisa Woodruff
When speaking of his wife, Woodruff gives her all the credit for his position as JP. “Lisa was the motor behind this,” he revealed. “She was my treasurer, campaign manager, marketing guru, and anything else I needed. Ask anyone, and they’ll tell you she has always been my biggest asset.” A professional powerhouse in her own right, Lisa works in marketing for Texas Medical Allergy Chiropractic. Together, they also champion the Wichita Falls community, serving on boards like the Zavala Board, a Hispanic culture organization that helps Hispanic children get college scholarships. In the past, they’ve worked with Kiwanis Club and Gold Coats (with the Chamber of Commerce), and Judge Woodruff is a Freemason. When there’s a moment of free time, he enjoys fishing, camping, college football, and of course, hanging out with his wife, Lisa.
No one says a career in public service is easy, least of all Robert Woodrufll. He finds contement in it just the same, explaining that although the first nine months have challenged him, they’ve also fulfilled him. “This first year has been everything I thought it would be and more. I have a new lease on life. I don’t work 12-hour shifts anymore, and it’s less stressful than police work. Plus, my office has a great view of the Collosseum.”
“You never know what life will bring you, but as long as voters keep me here, I plan to stay.” ~ Robert Woodruff
At the end of the day, Woodruff said he’ll be here as long as the public will have him. “You never know what life will bring you, but as long as voters keep me here, I plan to stay.” Fortunately, the partnership seems like a win for both sides. †