Upon graduation from Norman High School in 1942, Joe Rhea Cannon enlisted in the United States Marine Corps. Following his service, he obtained his undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma and later earned his Juris Doctorate in Law from the OU College of Law.
As a student, he was elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives from Muskogee County. He began his legal career in private practice in Muskogee and was soon called to public service by the Muskogee County District Attorney.
During his time as Assistant District Attorney, Cannon prosecuted a variety of cases that led him to win the election for Muskogee County District Attorney. His campaign platform was aimed at organized crime and corruption in the county. Cannon devoted himself to this promise by actively exposing and ridding the county of career criminals.
When J. Howard Edmondson was elected governor in 1959, he appointed Cannon as the Commissioner of Public Safety. He was once again charged with upholding the law and began enforcing the forgotten law of Prohibition. With the help of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, Cannon conducted raids on establishments that were in violation of the law, ranging from chicken coops to country clubs. His patrolmen applied unending pressure for 90 days until the citizens of Oklahoma voted to repeal the law and legally allow alcohol to be sold and consumed in Oklahoma. Cannon was later appointed as the legal assistant to Governor Edmondson.
After Governor Edmondson was appointed to the U.S. Senate, Cannon served a brief time in private practice; but the call to public service was too strong to ignore. He was appointed Special District Judge in Oklahoma County in 1973, and later elected District Judge.
As District Judge, Cannon presided over many controversial and ground breaking cases. Cannon remained on the bench until his retirement in 1988. Throughout his legal career, he was a student and teacher of the law.
Cannon enjoyed his retirement with his wife, Caroline, on their boat in Florida. He died on February 24, 2003, leaving a legacy for his wife, three children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.