Editor's note: this article has been updated to correct the statement in a letter from 23rd District Judge Ben Hardin and the number of judges the court has had.
ANGLETON — A bill containing provisions to break apart the multi-county 23rd Judicial District and create a new court serving only Brazoria County is on Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk.
If signed into law, Senate Bill 891 would remove Brazoria County from the 23rd District, a primarily civil and criminal court it shares with Matagorda and Wharton counties, and introduce the 461st District Court, which would be designated for Brazoria County family law cases, including divorces.
Abbott had not acted on the legislation as of Thursday afternoon. He has until June 16 to sign the bill into law, veto it or allow it to become law without his signature.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, filed SB 414 in late January calling for the changes to Brazoria County court system. It never made it out of the Senate State Affairs Committee, however, so the provisions were rolled into SB 891, which includes creating courts for other counties.
Brazoria County leaders had passed a resolution in December seeking the changes as a way to solve two critical Brazoria County courthouse problems — freeing up space and addressing a logjam of cases.
“If we had the physical space, we would have just added a court and shared the court like it was, but we have such a backlog of cases … we needed a full-time court and the 23rd District Court is not a full-time court for Brazoria County,” County Judge Matt Sebesta said.
Sharing the court with two other much-smaller counties limited how much of Brazoria County’s caseload the court could handle, Sebesta said. Dropping out of the 23rd District allows its staff to move to Matagorda or Wharton counties and the new 461st District court to take over the vacated space on the fourth floor of the Brazoria County Courthouse, Sebesta said.
It will take a while to get the bill implemented, see how it works and get the dockets aligned, 149th District Judge Terri Holder said. Holder is the 2019 presiding judge of Brazoria County’s district courts.
“We will take one step at a time and make it work out the best way possible,” Holder said. “Sometimes growth is just hard and it’s hard to figure out the best way to do it.”
House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, supports the changes, he said in a statement from his press office.
“I was proud to have led the House in passing this legislation, which restructures the district court in a way that will increase efficiency and meet the needs of all three counties,” he wrote.
WHAT OF THE JUDGE?
Longtime 23rd District Judge Ben Hardin is a Brazoria County resident. District judges are required to be residents of the district they represent, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s website.
Sebesta said Hardin has some options.
“He could put his name in for 461st District court or set up residency in one of the two counties it will be moved to,” Sebesta said. “He had the position for a number of years and would be a recognizable name on the ballot in those two counties.”
Hardin declined to comment for this story, but a Feb. 8 letter he wrote to Sen. Lois Kolkhorst, R-Brenham, whose district includes Matagorda and Wharton counties, said those counties’ commissioners passed resolutions opposing the removal of Brazoria County from the 23rd District.
“Brazoria County does need another district court, primarily to handle family cases,” the letter states.
The Office of Court Administration recommends two new district courts for Brazoria County in addition to the 23rd District Court, and the county judge and commissioners believe there is no room for another court in the courthouse, Hardin states in the letter.
“I believe this not to be true,” the letter states, adding the old commissioners courtroom has turned into offices that could be reconfigured into a courtroom.
Hardin wrote if the bill becomes law, it should not take effect until Jan. 1, 2021, to coincide with the end of his term. If signed, the bill is set to take effect Sept. 1.
Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the bill.
George “Toby” Wommack, an attorney who said he has known Hardin since high school, questions if the bill is constitutional. Hardin is a lifelong resident of Brazoria County who is elected mainly by Brazoria County voters, Wommack said.
“He’s elected and it would kick him out before his term is over,” he said.
Wommack questions the commissioners’ motives for removing Brazoria County from the 23rd Judicial District.
“I don’t really know why whoever is spearheading this is after Ben Hardin, but I’ll tell you there hasn’t been a smarter, more honest human being who has sat on the bench in Brazoria County,” Wommack said.
Another May 8 letter from Hardin to Kolkhorst states the 23rd District Court has historical value in Brazoria County and the change will cause hardship for Hardin’s longtime court staff.
Hardin has been the 23rd District judge since May 1995, the fourth judge since 1919 for the court that has been in Brazoria County for 183 years, according to the letter.
The proposal places need for a dedicated family court over the historical significance of the 23rd District, which was created the year Texas became a Republic, Sebesta said. While he appreciates the history of the court, having people’s personal cases dealt with in a timely manner is more important, he said.
“We have a lot of citizens that have moved to Brazoria County in the last couple of decades. With a divorce rate of about 50 percent, every two married couples who come to Brazoria County, we’re going to have one divorce,” Sebesta said. “When they have to wait and wait and wait for hearings, I’m not sure if the historic significance means anything to them. They just want to move on with their lives.”
The new court also will address cases relating to child abuse or neglect, Bonnen stated.
“The creation of a new family court will fill critical gaps in the child protection system and prevent our most vulnerable children from falling further into a cycle of abuse and neglect,” he wrote.
One week out of each month, the 461st district court will take criminal and civil cases, but the rest of the time, those cases will be added to the existing criminal and civil load the 149th, 239th, 300th and 412th district courts currently deal with, Sebesta said.
“In the short term, it might put some additional workload on those judges, but hopefully, in a few years, we can build more or remodel the courthouse to create additional space and add another court or two,” Sebesta said. “One thing I’m very proud of is the four district judges remaining are solid, hard-working judges.”
It will certainly help because the 461st court will be dedicated for families, and with growth, it’s hard to keep up with family cases, Holder said.
“I’m sure that everyone’s trying to do what’s best for the county,” Holder said. “It’s just hard to know the best way to accomplish it.”