A group of Tarrant County residents, consisting primarily of Democratic judges and constables, is suing the county over its redistricting of the justice courts.
The civil lawsuit — which was filed Tuesday, according to court documents — alleges that the county’s three Republican commissioners committed “an abuse of discretion” by approving the new court maps with little advance warning.
The lawsuit focuses on the lack of advance notice and alleges that the county commissioners violated open meetings laws.
Stephen Maxwell, the lawyer representing the group suing the county, said on Tuesday that the commissioners’ rapid approval of the new district maps was “horribly unfair and underhanded.”
Judge Sergio De Leon, of Tarrant County’s Precinct 5 justice court, is listed as the lead plaintiff on the lawsuit.
“This was nothing more than an abuse of power by my Republican colleagues and members of the commissioners court,” De Leon told the Star-Telegram on Tuesday. “This is egregious, what has occurred, and it is our intent to correct the wrong that has been done because it was such a clumsy attempt at redistricting, they have no idea exactly what they have done.”
The suit centers on a Nov. 9 meeting of the Tarrant County Commissioners Court.
At that meeting, Republican Judge Jason Charbonnet, of Tarrant County’s Precinct 6 justice court, presented a plan to redraw the justice court boundaries. Charbonnet said at the meeting that the map was drafted by Murphy Nasica, a political consulting firm that has worked on the campaigns of conservative policitians including Charbonnet himself, according to the firm’s website.
Charbonnet did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday evening.
The lawsuit claims that the county’s Democratic constables and justices of the peace were not informed of the redistricting maps until days before the November meeting. At that meeting, Commissioner Devan Allen — a Democrat who is among the plaintiffs suing the county — also said that she had not been given a copy of the proposed maps until the meeting was already underway.
The court redistricting process also caused a stir at the meeting. When the commissioners called a vote on the redistricting maps, Allen and fellow Democratic Commissioner Roy Brooks stood up and left the room. Their absence triggered a potential quorum break, which disrupted the meeting.
Ultimately, Allen and Brooks returned to the meeting chamber and the vote was recorded — and it fell along clear party lines. Republican commissioners J.D. Johnson and Gary Fickes, along with Judge Glen Whitley, voted in favor of the redistricting, while Allen did not vote and Brooks voted against the redistricting.
Whitley did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday evening. A county spokesperson declined to comment.
The lawsuit emphasizes the partisan nature of the redistricting, claiming that the Republican justices of the peace who drafted the new maps “had seen their prospects for future office wane in the face of increases in Tarrant County’s minority population, and they needed the Commissioners’ help to dilute this minority vote thereby increasing their chances of retaining their Justice of the Peace positions.”
Maxwell emphasized that the lawsuit filed Tuesday is a civil lawsuit, not a voting rights lawsuit such as the one that the U.S. Department of Justice filed against the state of Texas on Monday. That timing is “coincidental,” Maxwell said, but he added that the local group that filed the civil suit also plans to file a voting rights suit in the coming weeks.
He said the related voting rights lawsuit will likely be filed by early 2022.
The civil suit will have its first hearing on Wednesday, Maxwell said, for the consideration of a temporary restraining order. If granted, the restraining order would block the Tarrant County Commissioners Court from enforcing the new justice court boundaries.