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The structure of the Judiciary of Texas is laid out in Article 5 of the Texas Constitution and is further defined under the law of Texas, in particular the Texas Government Code and the Texas Probate Code. The structure is highly complex, featuring many layers of courts, numerous instances of overlapping jurisdiction, and an unusual bifurcated appellate system at the top level found in only one other state. The Municipal Courts are the most active courts, with the County and District Courts handling most other cases and often sharing the same buildings. Administration is the responsibility of the Texas Supreme Court, which is aided by the Texas Office of Court Administration, the Texas Judicial Council and the State Bar of Texas (the Texas Bar).
In the 19th century, Texas had a reputation for arbitrary "frontier justice"; in one notorious example highlighted by Stanford legal historian Lawrence M. Friedman, its appellate courts upheld a conviction of "guily" (where the t was omitted) in 1879 but reversed a conviction of "guity" (where the l was omitted) in 1886. 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 attributed to 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.'"
Texas is the only state besides Oklahoma to have a bifurcated appellate system at the highest level. The Texas Supreme Court hears appeals involving civil matters, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears appeals involving criminal matters.
Article V, Section 1, states:
[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.
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.
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.
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.
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). 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 . 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.
One of the most unique features of Texas trial courts, including district courts, is the tradition of having only one judge per trial court. Instead of adding more departments to existing courts in response to population growth, Texas adds more courts. The result is that a typical Texas urban courthouse is home to many single-judge trial courts, each of which is legally organized as a separate court with its own unique name and number. This contrasts sharply with the prevailing tradition in the federal judiciary and the courts of virtually all U.S. states, in which a trial court can have multiple judges sitting in separate departments and all of which have authority to act in the name of the same trial court. While Texas law provides for certain specific circumstances in which a judge of one trial court can act for an absent judge of another trial court in the same jurisdiction, it is not as flexible as simply treating all trial judges as members of the same court (and in turn occasionally results in another basis for appeal).
This tradition dates back to the hurried enactment of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas in 1836 by the newborn Republic. Section 2 of Article IV provided for "not less than three nor more than eight" judicial districts, and that "a judge" would be appointed for each district. Similar clauses implying one judge per court appeared in all subsequent constitutions. This issue was finally remedied by a constitutional amendment in 1985, but the tradition of one judge per trial court was by then thoroughly entrenched.
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.
There is a County Court for each of the 254 counties in Texas. 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.
The county court has exclusive jurisdiction over "Class A" and "Class B" misdemeanors (these offenses can involve jail time), concurrent jurisdiction over civil cases where the amount in controversy is moderately sized, and 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").
Section 15 states that the County Court shall be a "court of record". 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.
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.
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 jurisdiction 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.
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.
The lowest court level in Texas is the Justice of the Peace Court (also called Justice Court or JP Court). Each county has a 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.
Section 19 sets forth the minimum jurisdiction of the JP court:
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.
Under Section 18, the number of JP's (and associated constables) is dependent on the size of the county:
The Texas Supreme Court has constitutional responsibility for the efficient administration of the judicial system and possesses the authority to make rules of administration applicable to the courts. The chief justice of the Supreme Court, presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, chief justices of each of the 14 courts of appeals, and judges of each of the trial courts are generally responsible for the administration of their respective courts.
There is a local administrative district judge in each county, as well as a local administrative statutory county court judge in each county that has a statutory county court. In counties with two or more district courts, a local administrative district judge is elected by the district judges in the county for a term not to exceed two years; in counties with two or more statutory county courts, a local administrative statutory county court judge is elected by the statutory county court judges for a term not to exceed two years. The local administrative judge is charged with implementing the local rules of administration, supervising the expeditious movement of court caseloads, and other administrative duties.
eFileTexas.gov is the official electronic court filing (e-filing) system. Each county maintains (or does not maintain) their own docket management and retrieval systems, similar to PACER for the federal government. There is no longer an officially published reporter. West's Texas Cases (a Texas-specific version of the South Western Reporter) includes reported opinions of the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and the Courts of Appeals. The Texas Reports includes Supreme Court opinions until July 1962, and the Texas Criminal Reports includes Court of Criminal Appeals opinions until November 1962. There is no systematic reporting of decisions of trial courts. Court opinions can generally be freely accessed on the web from the various courts' websites, with appellate opinions generally being available from 1997–2002 onwards.
The Texas Judicial Council is the primary policy-making body for the judiciary. It is responsible for studying and recommending changes to improve the administration of justice. The Administrative Director of the Office of Court Administration serves as Executive Director for the Council.
The Texas Office of Court Administration provides information and research, technology services, budgetary and legal support, and other administrative assistance to a variety of judicial branch entities and courts, under the supervision of the Supreme Court of Texas and the Chief Justice. The office is led by an Administrative Director appointed by the Supreme Court and reporting to the Chief Justice.
The State Bar of Texas (the Texas Bar) is an agency of the judiciary under the administrative control of the Texas Supreme Court. The Texas Bar is responsible for assisting the Texas Supreme Court in overseeing all attorneys licensed to practice law in Texas.
Judges are elected in partisan elections. Trial judges are elected for 4 years, and appeals court judges are elected for 6 years. The Governor may fill vacancies until the next election, and judges traditionally leave office before their last term. Judges may be removed by voters in retention elections, by trial by jury, or by legislative address or impeachment if state judges.
District court judges are required to be licensed attorneys. In addition to judicial powers, district judges also have administrative duties as well. District judges may remove county officials , officials of a general-law municipality , and municipal court judges  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.
County judges do not need to be lawyers, and most are not. Sections 15 through 17 of Article V, as well as Chapters 25 and 26 of the Texas Government Code, outline the duties of County Court officers. Section 15 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. The county judge is also responsible for presiding over the Commissioners Court (the main executive and legislative body of the county). County court at law judges are required to be lawyers.
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:
The thirteen-member Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct hears complaints against judges, and may censure, reprimand, or recommend removal by the Supreme Court. It very rarely punishes judges; out of more than 1,110 complaints it resolved in fiscal year 2009, only 70 disciplinary actions were taken.
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. In addition, the JP is an ex officio notary public.
A "magistrate" can be any judge or JP and can set bonds, arraign defendants, issue search and arrest warrants, and hear criminal bond forfeiture hearings. Five counties (Bexar, Dallas, Lubbock, Tarrant, and Travis) have district court magistrates who are appointed by district court judges and do not conduct trials.
There are several prosecution offices: district attorneys, county attorneys, criminal district attorneys, and city attorneys. District attorneys prosecute criminal cases in district courts and serve one or more counties in which they are elected for four-year terms. County attorneys prosecute misdemeanor criminal cases and serve a single county in which they are elected for four-year terms. Criminal district attorneys prosecute both felony and misdemeanor criminal cases and serve a single county in which they are elected for four-year terms. City attorneys prosecute criminal cases in municipal courts. If a county has only a district attorney or county attorney, this official prosecutes all criminal cases within the county.