Author:
Kris Seago
Subject:
Government/Political Science
Material Type:
Full Course
Level:
Academic Lower Division
Provider:
Austin Community College
Tags:
ACC Liberal Arts, ACC OER
License:
Creative Commons Attribution
Language:
English
Media Formats:
Text/HTML

The Structure of the Texas Court System

Overview

The Structure of the Texas Court System

Learning Objective

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe how state courts are structured in Texas

Introduction

Picture of Old Cora courthouse
Figure 5.1 Built in 1856, the Old Cora Courthouse is a split-log, one-room courthouse that also served as a post office when it was built. It is the oldest courthouse in Texas still standing, though it now only stands as a historic landmark. Image Credit: Nicolas Henderson License: CC BY

Even before Texas became its own Republic, Texas had a system of courts. As citizens of Mexico, Texans were given access to state and local courts created by the Mexican constitutions of 1824 and 1827. Appeals, however, were handled only in Saltillo, over 600 miles from the northern parts of the state.

Accordingly, the Republic of Texas and, later, the State of Texas established a judiciary with local access to both trial and appeals courts. Texas has more courts than any other state, creating more access to courts, but also additional costs.

The Structure of the Texas Court System

Although the Supreme Court tends to draw the most public attention, it typically hears fewer than one hundred cases every year. In fact, the entire federal side—both trial and appellate—handles proportionately very few cases, with about 90 percent of all cases in the U.S. court system being heard at the state level. The several hundred thousand cases handled every year on the federal side pale in comparison to the several million handled by the states.

State courts really are the core of the U.S. judicial system, and they are responsible for a huge area of law. Most crimes and criminal activity, such as robbery, rape, and murder, are violations of state laws, and cases are thus heard by state courts. State courts also handle civil matters; personal injury, malpractice, divorce, family, juvenile, probate, and contract disputes and real estate cases, to name just a few, are usually state-level cases.

How does the Texas county court system work?

In our legal system criminal cases are those where a defendant is accused of violating the law. If found guilty, a punishment ranging from a small monetary fine to the death penalty may be inflicted. All other cases are civil, ranging from negligence cases like Del Lago v. Smith to eviction, divorce and child custody, wills and estates, protective orders and the enforcement of business contracts.

In all cases, a trial court – generally with a jury of citizens – must determine matters of fact. Appellate courts are there only to determine matters of law did the trial court conduct its proceedings fairly and correctly? What sorts of courts handle judicial cases in Texas?

Types of Jurisdiction

Every court system has jurisdiction over certain cases, from enforcing traffic laws to hearing capital murder charges. There are three types of jurisdictions:

  1. Original Jurisdiction– the court that gets to hear the case first. For example, Municipal courts typically have original jurisdiction over traffic offenses the occur within city limits.
  2. Appellate Jurisdiction– the power for a higher court to review a lower courts decision. For example, the Texas Court of Appeals has appellate jurisdiction over the District Courts (see the hierarchy of Texas Court Structure in Section 5.2).
  3. Exclusive Jurisdiction– only that court can hear a specific case. For example, only the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Court can hear appeals for death penalty sentences.

Judicial Hierarchy

The Texas court system is hierarchical, meaning cases start in local trial courts, then work their way up to appeals courts. State district courts have original jurisdiction, meaning that cases are generally heard by juries of citizens. District courts in rural Texas can be all-purpose courts – hearing all types of criminal and civil cases. District courts in urban areas often specialize. Harris County, with its population of more than 5 million, has courts specifically assigned only to criminal cases, with others specifically assigned to civil, juvenile and family cases.

Any case appealed from one of Texas’ 472 district courts goes to one of 14 courts of appeals, each of which hears all types of cases. From there, the system splits. Criminal cases appealed from any court of appeals go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. All civil cases go to the Texas Supreme Court. These two co-equal highest courts have the final say on all cases in the state system, although some cases can be further appealed into the federal system.

Municipal Courts

Municipal courts are city courts, often with judges appointed by mayors and city councils – the only judges in Texas who are not elected by the citizens. They have exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving the violation of city ordinances (like building something without getting a building permit) but handle mostly parking and traffic tickets.

Justice of the Peace Courts

Texas has 822 justices of the peace (JPs), selected by voters in partisan elections. Harris County has 16 “JP” courts, but even rural counties have at least one. JPs are the true jacks-of-all-trades in the Texas judicial system. They handle traffic tickets and other low-level criminal offenses, civil cases involving amounts up to $20,000, debt collection cases, commercial and residential evictions, truancy – even inquests (declaring people dead) in all but the largest urban counties. Justices of the Peace do not have to be attorneys, and a majority of Texas JPs are, in fact, not lawyers.

Constitutional County Courts

The Texas Constitution assigns certain judicial powers to county commissioners’ courts, which are also the governing bodies of Texas counties. As a constitutional county court, they hold hearings on beer and wine license applications, assignment of the mentally ill to hospitals, juvenile work permits, and temporary guardianship.

County Courts at Law

Harris County has 16 county criminal courts-at-law, along with 4 county civil courts-at-law. The legislature has allowed counties specific numbers of these courts, depending on the county’s population. County criminal courts- at-law can handle cases involving up to a year in county jail, and where the fine would exceed $500. Civil courts-at-law handle disputes involving between $20,000 and $100,000, as well as civil appeals from justice of the peace courts. County court judges are elected by voters to four-year terms in partisan elections.

Probate Courts

Probate courts handle wills and estates for deceased persons in Texas’ largest counties. Judges are elected to 4-year terms by county voters in partisan elections. In smaller counties, these matters are handled by the local district or county court.

State District Courts

State District Courts are the starting point for serious criminal and civil cases in Texas. Civil cases involving more than $200 and criminal cases for which the penalty can involve the state prison system or the death penalty begin with a trial in state district court. District courts also have exclusive jurisdiction over divorce and land title cases. State District Judges are elected in partisan elections and serve 4-year terms.

Appellate Courts

Texas has 14 courts of appeal, each serving a specific set of counties. Each court has nine members, each of which is elected to a six-year term in a partisan election. The terms are staggered so that three of the nine positions on each court are placed before the area’s voters every two years. While each court of appeals has nine judges, the caseload for courts of appeal in Texas is staggering. For the sake of efficiency, nearly all cases are heard by three judge panels – allowing the court to triple the number of cases they can consider at any one time. Occasionally, a party to a particularly difficult or controversial case may petition to have the case heard en banc – meaning by all nine judges.

While the district courts from which a court of appeals’ appellate cases are referred may be highly specialized, the courts of appeals are not. All 14 courts have first appellate jurisdiction over every type of criminal and civil case.

Picture of Tx supreme court
Figure 5.2 Immediately northwest of the Capitol Building, the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals meet here. Image Credit: Andrew Teas CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/) 

If a case is appealed from one of Texas’ 14 courts of appeals, however, the system splits. Criminal cases go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Civil cases go to the Texas Supreme Court. Each of Texas’ two highest courts has nine members, elected statewide in partisan elections. Unlike courts of appeals, however, the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals hear all cases en banc.

 

Chapter Five: Check Your Understanding

Diagram of the Bifurcated Texas Court System

The structure of the Texas court system is set up as a bifurcated system, meaning there are two highest courts of appeals for criminal and civil cases. The table below depicts the structure of the Texas court system with some additional jurisdiction and court information. Note that Juvenile Courts preside in the District Courts - In Texas, a juvenile is defined as young as 10 years old, and a juvenile can be convicted as an adult as young as 14 years old.

This is a diagram of the court structure of Texas as of February 2021
Figure 5.3 Structure of the Texas Court System. Image Credit: Texas Judicial Branch (https://www.txcourts.gov/media/1452084/court-structure-chart-february-2021.pdf) Court Structure of Texas February 2021 

Licenses and Attributions

CC LICENSED CONTENT, ORIGINAL

Court Organization. Authored by: Daniel M. Regalado. License: CC BY: Attribution

The Structure of the Texas Court System. Authored by: Andrew Teas. License: CC BY: Attribution

PUBLIC DOMAIN CONTENT

Court Structure of Texas. Authored by: Texas Judicial Branch. Located at: http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1436909/court-structure-chart- jan-2017.pdf License: Public Domain: No Known Copyright

CC LICENSED CONTENT, ORIGINAL

The Court System of Texas: Introduction. Authored by: Andrew Teas. License: CC BY: Attribution