Landowners' case moves to federal magistrate

Marilyn Tennissen Sep. 5, 2007, 3:38pm

A case involving landowners who say a lawsuit against them is a violation of their civil rights has been referred to a federal magistrate in Beaumont.

In November 2006,William White, Steven White and Laird Finch filed a federal civil rights suit in Galveston in the Southern District of Texas. The federal suit was in response to a state suit filed against them a month before, alleging that the three Chambers County residents were trying to stop a drainage project that would aid flooding problems in southwest Jefferson County by comments they made during the permitting process.

The landowners say having a lawsuit filed against them for participating in the public comment process is a violation of rights protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

In April, the federal civil rights case was transferred from the Southern District of Texas to District Judge Marcia Crone in the Eastern District.

On Aug. 22, Crone referred the case to Magistrate Judge Earl S. Hines.

In civil proceedings, Magistrate Judges may preside over jury or non-jury trials of civil cases of any kind with the consent of the parties. They manage pretrial discovery of civil cases scheduled to be tried before district judges, and issue rulings on discovery disputes. They may also be assigned to handle habeas corpus cases and social security appeals.

All decisions of a magistrate judge are subject to review and either approval, modification or reversal by a district judge of that court, except in civil cases where the parties consent in advance to allow the magistrate judge to exercise the jurisdiction of the district judge.

The court battle began when the Whites and Laird spoke out against a drainage project that Jefferson County Drainage Districts 3 and 6 had been working on for 14 years. The ranchers say the project would actually cause flooding of their land rather than alleviate the problem.

While the project was in the permitting period, the landowners participated in the public comment process that allows for any concerns from citizens. Public commenting is a requirement before an agency like the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will grant a permit for work by the Corps of Engineers.

After William White, Steven White and Laird Finch submitted their comments, Beaumont attorney Walter Umphrey filed a lawsuit in district court against them on behalf of 20 other landowners and DD3 and DD6.

The state suit claims the complaints about the project by the Whites and Laird were "shams." Umphrey said the agency reviews, hydrology studies and manpower involved in the project have cost Drainage District 6 and Jefferson County more than $8 million and taken more than decade.

Umphrey and the 20 plaintiffs said the Whites and Laird "hijacked" the project at the 11th hour because of a "highly unlikely few inches of water in the Intracoastal Canal and the scientifically ridiculous assertion that their cows will float the wrong way in the canal."

The state case is still pending.

In response to the suit filed by Umphrey, the Whites and Laird filed their own federal suit against DD6 and the others, claiming it was their right to make any comment about the project.

On Aug. 24, Jim Blackburn, attorney for plaintiffs William White, Steven White and Laird Finch agreed to give the defendant DD6 until Sept. 17 to respond to a request for interrogatories and production.

Larry Simmons of Germer Gertz is representing Drainage District 6.

Case No. 1:07-cv-00181-MAC-ESH

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