Texas judicial system

Texas judicial system

The structure of the Texas judicial system is laid out in Article 5 of the Texas Constitution, and is further defined under the Texas Government Code and, with regards to probate matters, under the Texas Probate Code.

The structure is highly complex, featuring five layers of courts, several instances of overlapping jurisdiction, and an unusual bifurcated appellate system at the top level found in only one other state.


History and perception

Traditionally, it has had a reputation for arbitrary "frontier justice"; in one notorious example highlighted by Stanford legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman, its appellate courts sustained a conviction of "guily" (where the t was omitted) in 1879 but reversed a conviction of "guity" (where the l was omitted) in 1886.[1][2] The latter decision actually attempted to distinguish the earlier one by trying to explain why the letter l was more important than the letter t. The poor quality of Texas justice has been blamed on the state's shortage of proper law schools and law libraries, as well as the traditional preference of Texans for "'self-help' justice as practiced in the courts of 'Judge Winchester' or 'Judge Lynch.'"[3] More recently, it has been pointed out that in Texas, victims of intrafamilial violence are sometimes required to cover the legal expenses of their family members who are being prosecuted for beating them up.[4]

Constitutional structure

Article V, Section 1, states that "[t]he judicial power of this State shall be vested in one Supreme Court, in one Court of Criminal Appeals, in Courts of Appeals, in District Courts, in County Courts, in Commissioners Courts, in Courts of Justices of the Peace, and in such other courts as may be provided by law. The Legislature may establish such other courts as it may deem necessary and prescribe the jurisdiction and organization thereof, and may conform the jurisdiction of the district and other inferior courts thereto." As such, the Texas Legislature has created additional courts to handle its growing population.

Further sections of Article V spell out the basic requirements for each court's jurisdiction and for its officers.

Justice of the Peace Courts

The lowest court level in Texas is the Justice of the Peace Court (also called Justice Court or JP Court). Sections 18 and 19 of Article V, as well as Chapters 27 and 28 of the Texas Government Code, outline the duties of these Courts and their officers.

Under Section 18, the number of JP's (and associated constables) is dependent on the size of the county:

  • For counties with populations less than 18,000 (as determined by the census), the entire county shall be one JP precinct, unless the Commissioners' Court determines that more are needed, in which case the court can divide the county into no more than four JP precincts.
  • For counties with populations at least 18,000 but less than 50,000, the number of JP precincts shall be no less than two nor more than eight.
  • For counties with populations 50,000 or greater, the number of JP precincts shall be no less than four nor more than eight.
  • In any county with population less than 150,000, if any precinct contains a city with 18,000 or more population, that precinct shall have two JP's.
  • In any county with population 150,000 or greater, each JP precinct may have more than one JP.
  • Special provisions apply to Chambers and Randall counties (must have no fewer than two nor more than six precincts) and to Mills, Reagan, and Roberts (the Constable office is abolished, with the Sheriff's office performing all duties).

Section 19 sets forth the minimum jurisdiction of the JP court:

  • Original jurisdiction in "criminal matters of misdemeanor cases punishable by fine only" (called "Class C" misdemeanor cases under the Texas Penal Code),
  • Exclusive jurisdiction in "civil matters where the amount in controversy is $200 or less", and
  • "Such other jurisdiction as may be provided by law". Under this provision, the Legislature has raised the top limit on civil matters to $10,000 and assigned the JP courts, among others, the right to hear cases involving eviction as well as cases involving foreclosure and liens against personal property where the amount falls within the (revised) JP Court's jurisdiction.

In addition, the JP is an ex-officio notary public.

There is no requirement that the JP be an attorney. However, the Texas Government Code requires a JP to attend an 80-hour course involving the performance of JP duties within one year after initial election, and a 20-hour course every year thereafter.

JP cases are appealed to the county court level where the case results in a trial de novo. In criminal cases, cases beginning in justice court cannot be appealed beyond the county level court unless the fine is more than $100 or a constitutional matter is asserted.

Municipal Courts

Under the authority granted it by Section 1 of Article V, the Legislature has allowed for the creation of municipal courts in each incorporated city in Texas, by voter approval creating such court. Chapters 29 and 30 of the Texas Government Code outline the duties of these Courts and their officers.

Municipal courts in Texas come into contact with more defendants than all other Texas courts combined. The subject matter of municipal courts relates to crimes relating to public safety and quality of life issues. In recent years, municipal courts and justice court in Texas have become the primary venue for acts of misconduct committed by children.

Within the city limits, these courts have shared jurisdiction with the JP courts on Class C criminal misdemeanor cases, and have exclusive jurisdiction on cases involving city ordinances. Municipal courts have limited civil jurisdiction over public matters relating to public safety (e.g., dangerous dog determinations). Confusion surrounding a municipal court's civil jurisdiction is complicated that if a municipal court is a "court of record," the Legislature has authorized municipalities to adopt ordinances that give municipal courts concurrent jurisdiction over substandard building cases with county and/or district courts. The matter of civil jurisidiction has been further confused by the advent of civil penalties for conduct that can be prosecuted as a Class C misdemeanor (e.g. certain parking violations, red light camera violations).

As a general rule, the municipal courts are not "courts of record" (i.e., no written transcript of the proceedings was taken), and thus an appeal to the county level would require a whole new trial (i.e., a trial de novo). This proved to be a loophole for some defendants in traffic cases, who betted on the officer not being able to attend, and thus having the case dismissed. Furthermore, the de novo trials crowded the dockets of already busy county courts at law. Many major cities -- such as those in Austin, El Paso, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio-- have chosen to convert their municipal courts to courts of record (this also requires voter approval) to close this loophole.

In one of the odd provisions of the Texas Government Code, there is no requirement that a municipal judge be an attorney if the municipal court is not a court of record (Chapter 29, Section 29.004), but the municipal judge must be a licensed attorney with at least two years experience in practicing Texas law if the municipal court is a court of record (Chapter 30, Section 30.00006). The Code provides for differing requirements for municipal judges in certain cities, such as:

  • Lubbock (five years experience, Section 30.00044)
  • El Paso (provides for a presiding judge to be paid 20% above the other judges, Section 30.00128)
  • San Antonio (must be have resided in the city for three years prior to appointment, Section 30.00224)
  • Wichita Falls (need not be a resident of the city when appointed but must be a resident during his tenure, Section 30.00304),
  • Sweetwater (need only be a licensed attorney in good standing, Section 30.00464)
  • Lewisville ("shall devote as much time to the office as it requires", Section 30.01326)
  • Houston ("may only be removed under Article V, Section 1-a, of the Texas Constitution", Section 30.00674)
  • Bullard (the requirement for being a licensed attorney does not apply, Section 30.01482)
  • Westlake and Trophy Club (both cities are located in Tarrant and Denton counties; for Westlake criminal appeals are taken to the Tarrant County Courts at Law, while for Trophy Club criminal appeals are taken to the Denton County Courts at Law, Sections 30.01781 and 30.01811)

Municipal court cases are generally appealed to the county court level, but cannot be appealed beyond that level unless the fine is more than $100 or a constitutional matter is asserted.

County Courts

The Texas Constitution states that "[t]here shall be established in each county in this State a County Court ..." Sections 15 through 17 of Article V, as well as Chapters 25 and 26 of the Texas Government Code, outline the duties of these Courts and their officers.

Section 15 states that the County Court shall be a "court of record", and states that the county judge shall be "well informed in the law of the State", "a conservator of the peace", and shall be elected for a four-year term. Section 16 states that the County Court "has jurisdiction as provided by law"; Section 17 states that the County Court shall hold terms as provided by law and that County Court juries shall consist of six persons, but in civil cases a jury shall not be empaneled unless one of the parties demands it and pays a jury fee or files an affidavit stating that it is unable to do so.

The county court has appellate jurisdiction over JP and municipal court cases (for municipal court cases, this may involve a trial de novo if the lower court is not a "court of record"), exclusive jurisdiction over "Class A" and "Class B" misdemeanors (these offenses can involve jail time), and concurrent jurisdiction over civil cases where the amount in controversy is moderately sized.

Since the county judge is also responsible for presiding over the Commissioners Court (the main executive and legislative body of the county), in most counties the Texas Legislature has established county courts at law to relieve the county judge of judicial duties. In most counties with courts at law, the civil and criminal jurisdiction of the constitutional county court has been transferred to the county courts at law. The county courts at law may hear both civil and criminal matters, or hear them separately, depending on how the Legislature has structured them. Unlike the county judge, judges of the county courts of law are required to be attorneys.

In another unique twist, the Constitution grants the Legislature the authority to determine which court handles probate matters. Thus, in ten of the 15 largest counties (specifically, the counties of Bexar, Collin, Dallas, Denton, El Paso, Galveston, Harris, Hidalgo, Tarrant, and Travis) the Legislature has established one or more Statutory Probate Courts. These specialized courts handle matters of probate, guardianship, trust, and mental health. In some counties, the statutory probate courts also hear condemnation cases. There are no jurisdictional monetary limits on the types of lawsuits that a statutory probate court may hear. As such, their jurisdiction at times overlaps that of the district court.

District Courts

The state trial courts of general jurisdiction are the Texas district courts.

The district court has exclusive jurisdiction on felony cases, cases involving title to land, and election contest cases.

It shares jurisdiction with the county courts, and in some case justice of the peace courts, for civil cases (its lowest limit for hearing a case is a mere $200 in controversy, while JP courts can hear cases up to $10,000). In a "catchall" provision it hears all cases "in which jurisdiction is not placed in another trial court."

Family law jurisdiction varies depending on the existence of a county court-at-law; in some counties, the district courts share jurisdiction over divorces, child custody and support matters, adoptions and child welfare cases with county courts at law. Also, probate jurisdiction varies depending on the existence of a statutory probate court in the county.

Some smaller counties share a district court; the larger counties have multiple district courts, which in some cases specialize in civil, criminal, family law or juvenile matters.

District court judges are required to be licensed attorneys. Due to this, defendants in counties which only have the traditional constitutional county court may elect to have their cases transferred to a district court to be heard by a judge with a law degree [1]. However, defendants in counties with the county court at law structure do not have this option, as the county court at law judges are required to have law degrees.

In addition to judicial powers, district judges also have administrative duties as well. District judges may remove county officials [2], officials of a general-law municipality [3], and municipal court judges [4] under certain circumstances. Also, they appoint and supervise the county auditor, oversee the operations of the adult and juvenile probation offices, and are granted "supervisory" jurisdiction over the county commissioners court.

Texas Courts of Appeals

Texas has 14 Courts of Appeals, which have intermediate appellate jurisdiction in both civil and criminal cases.

Each court has between three and 13 justices (there are a total of 80); the number is set by statute. All cases are heard by a three-justice panel unless a hearing en banc is ordered. The Texas Legislature determines which counties are assigned to a court, and has shifted counties between courts to balance the docket.

Death penalty cases are automatically appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and bypass this level.

In yet another unique twist, two of the fourteen courts are located in Houston (the 1st and 14th Courts), both having concurrent jurisdiction over the same counties (cases are to be assigned on a random selection basis but may be moved in order to equalize the docket). An even more bizarre situation occurs in East Texas, where the Sixth and Twelfth appellate districts overlap in four counties--Gregg, Rusk, Upshur, and Wood, while in North Texas Hunt County is in both the Fifth and Sixth appellate districts.

1st - Houston
2nd - Fort Worth
3rd - Austin
4th - San Antonio
5th - Dallas
6th - Texarkana
7th - Amarillo
8th - El Paso
9th - Beaumont
10th - Waco
11th - Eastland
12th - Tyler
13th - Corpus Christi/Edinburg

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Texas Supreme Court

Texas has a bifurcated appellate system at the highest level. Oklahoma is the only other state with this type of appellate system at the highest level.

The Texas Supreme Court hears appeals involving civil matters and does not hear any appeals involving criminal matters except when the defendant is a juvenile. Under Texas law, juvenile proceedings (even those involving criminal activity) are considered civil matters; thus, the Texas Supreme Court hears such appeals, but it defers to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in matters where the Texas Penal Code must be interpreted. The Supreme Court also maintains responsibility for attorney licensing and discipline.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears appeals on criminal cases excluding those involving juvenile proceedings. Cases in which the death penalty was imposed are directly and automatically appealed to this court, bypassing the lower Courts of Appeals.


  1. ^ Lawrence M. Friedman, A History of American Law, 3rd ed. (New York: Touchstone, 2005), 299.
  2. ^ Lawrence M. Friedman, Crime and Punishment in American History (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 256.
  3. ^ Bill Neal, Getting Away With Murder On The Texas Frontier: Notorious Killings & Celebrated Trials (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2006), 5-8.
  4. ^ Chavez, Adriana M. (2010-01-31). "Woman beaten by son must cover legal costs". Statesman.com. El Paso Times. http://www.statesman.com/news/texas/woman-beaten-by-son-must-cover-legal-costs-205159.html. Retrieved 19 August 2011. 

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