Conflict between County Judge Tim O’Hare and Democratic Party justices of the peace escalated Thursday after they released a statement accusing O’Hare of racism, cronyism and “crass partisanship.”
O’Hare held a meeting to allegedly discuss the justice of the peace “visiting judge” policy, according to a statement signed by Judge Sergio L. De Leon, Judge Kenneth Sanders and Judge Lisa Woodard, who represent precincts 5, 7 and 8 respectively. None of the three minority judges were invited to the meeting.
“This is about Judge O’Hare’s approach to this issue and his failure to reach out to the minority [justices of the peace] because, while we’re only three people, we represent thousands of people, and that needs to be taken into consideration,” De Leon told the Fort Worth Report.
The exclusion was “racially insensitive and partisan,” the judges said. Sanders and Woodard are Black and De Leon is Hispanic. They told the Report they believe the commissioners court should debate the policy change at a public meeting with input from all Tarrant County justices of the peace and the broader community.
O’Hare called the statement “misinformation.”
“Some Tarrant County Democrats continue to believe that elections do not have consequences. They continue to cry racism over every decision they disagree with,” O’Hare said in a statement.
“The latest outcry is over my decision to exercise the authority provided to this office by state law.”
The judges say O’Hare allegedly discussed giving former Republican Judge Matt Hayes right of first refusal for visiting judge assignments whenever a current judge needs a temporary substitute. The Report reached out to Hayes for comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.
What are the duties of a Justice of the Peace?
The Justice of the Peace presides over evictions, license suspensions, civil cases involving less than $20,000 and marriages.
Each justice of the peace will receive about $5,839 to $8,758 in fiscal year 2024 to compensate visiting judges who serve in their absence. Visiting judges typically receive $566.86 for a day of work, according to documents reviewed by the Report.
State statute allows the county judge to appoint a temporary judge, either by his own motion or by request of a justice of the peace, whenever a judge will be absent due to vacation, training or illness. There is no language indicating that the county judge must follow the recommendation of the sitting justice of the peace.
But De Leon and Woodard said allowing them to pick a visiting judge was the norm. Neither could recall ever having their choice of judge overruled under former County Judge Glen Whitley.
“The county judge never really needs to intervene in these matters because it’s so routine, so procedural,” De Leon said.
O’Hare and Judge Kenneth Sanders spar over visiting judge policies
Since assuming office in January, O’Hare has overruled a judge’s replacement request at least once.
Sanders, a Precinct 7 judge, was hospitalized in late July. He recommended the county temporarily appoint former Judge Vicki Gray to fill his spot. He said it’s normal for sitting judges to recommend a temporary replacement from a list of eligible judges.
Judges fill out a form each time they need a replacement. Those forms include a list of eligible replacements a judge can request. Those forms are then reviewed and approved by the county judge. Hayes is currently on the substitution list.
Instead of following Sanders’ recommendation, documents show that O’Hare appointed Hayes, who has lost two races against Sanders to represent Precinct 7. The precinct encompasses southeast Tarrant County.
“I do feel targeted by it,” Sanders said. “My primary concern is that the behavior of the county judge speaks to cronyism.”
O’Hare said his office received a request from Sanders for a visiting judge on Sept. 11 and 12, on Sept. 13 after the substitute was needed. O’Hare sent two follow-up letters to Sanders’ office instructing him to request a visiting judge at least two days before the date of service.
“It appears that one JP doesn’t understand the law or thinks it doesn’t apply to him,” O’Hare said in a statement.
‘We are livid’
Taking away the ability of judges to select their own replacements does a disservice to their districts, De Leon said. He often selects a bilingual judge to preside over Precinct 5 in his absence. De Leon is the only Hispanic justice of the peace and serves a heavily Hispanic precinct.
“Our districts are minority districts,” Woodard said. “And so I think it’s important to me, when I select my visiting judges, I make sure that I select someone who I know that’s going to be fair because our districts don’t always get fair justice.”
Woodard, De Leon and Sanders said they have nothing against Hayes as a judge. Their issue lies with allegedly taking away their choice in a meeting they were not invited to. The meeting is part of a broader pattern of divisiveness by O’Hare, the judges said.
“We are livid. Our communities have been disrespected,” De Leon said. “We feel like our voices don’t matter. And that kind of attitude needs to stop. And that’s why we’ve called this out because he needs to be called out on every single item that disrespects communities of color.”
The Report called every other justice of the peace office asking if they attended the meeting. Only the office of Judge Jason Charbonnet, a Republican, confirmed that he did not attend the meeting. The other justices of the peace did not respond to requests for comments by the time of publication.
Here are the full statements from O’Hare and the Justices of the Peace:
“There’s so much misinformation in that missive it isn’t worthy of a response, other than to say it isn’t surprising to see Democrats resort to the same tired playbook.
Some Tarrant County Democrats continue to believe that elections do not have consequences. They continue to cry racism over every decision they disagree with. It will not deter nor dissuade me from continuing to do what I believe is right for the people of Tarrant County. Ever.
The latest outcry is over my decision to exercise the authority provided to this office by state law. It appears that one JP doesn’t understand the law or thinks it doesn’t apply to him.”
At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.Emily Wolf is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at email@example.com or via Twitter. Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter.