Author:
Kris Seago
Subject:
Political Science
Material Type:
Module
Level:
Community College / Lower Division
Tags:
Court, Structure, Texas
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English
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Structure Of The Texas Court System

Structure Of The Texas Court System

Overview

Structure Of The Texas Court System

Learning Objectives

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

  • Discuss the structure of the Texas Court System

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

  • Discuss the structure of the Texas Court System

Structure Of The Texas Court System

Structure Of The Texas Court System

The Texas court system is 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. [1]

 

Structure of the Texas Court System

  1. http://www.txcourts.gov/media/1436909/court-structure-chart-jan-2017.pdf

CC LICENSED CONTENT, ORIGINAL

Trial Courts

Trial Courts

In trial courts:

  • Witnesses are heard;
  • Testimony is received;
  • Exhibits are offered into evidence; and
  • A verdict is rendered.

The trial court structure in Texas has several different levels, each level handling different types of cases, with some overlap. The state trial court of general jurisdiction is known as the district court. The county-level courts consist of the constitutional county courts, statutory county courts, and statutory probate courts. In addition, there is at least one justice court located in each county, and there are municipal courts located in each incorporated city.

Municipal Courts

Municipal Courts

Under its constitutional authority to create “such other courts as may be provided by law,” the Legislature has created municipal courts in each incorporated municipality in the state. In lieu of a municipal court created by the Legislature, municipalities may choose to establish municipal courts of record.

The jurisdiction of municipal courts is provided in Chapters 29 and 30 of the Texas Government Code. Municipal courts have:

  • Original and exclusive jurisdiction over criminal violations of certain municipal ordinances and airport board rules, orders, or resolutions that do not exceed $2,000 in some instances and $500 in others;
  • Concurrent jurisdiction with the justice courts in certain misdemeanor criminal cases; and
  • Concurrent jurisdiction over truancy cases.

In addition to the jurisdiction of a regular municipal court, municipal courts of record also have jurisdiction over criminal cases arising under ordinances authorized by certain provisions of the Local Government Code. The municipality may also provide by ordinance that a municipal court of record have additional jurisdiction in certain civil and criminal matters.

Municipal judges also serve in the capacity of a committing magistrate, with the authority to issue warrants for the apprehension and arrest of persons charged with the commission of felony or misdemeanor offenses. As a magistrate, the municipal judge may hold preliminary hearings, reduce testimony to writing, discharge the accused, or remand the accused to jail and set bail.

Trials in municipal courts are not generally “of record;” many appeals go to the county court, county court at law, or district court by a trial de novo. Appeals from municipal courts of record are generally heard in the county criminal courts, county criminal courts of appeal or municipal courts of appeal. If none of these courts exist in the county or municipality, appeals are to a county court at law.

Justice Courts

Justice Courts

As amended in November 1983, the Texas Constitution provides that each county is to be divided, according to population, into at least one, and not more than eight, justice precincts, in each of which is to be elected one or more justices of the peace. 

Generally, the justice courts have: 

  • Original jurisdiction in misdemeanor criminal cases where punishment upon conviction may be by fine only; 
  • Exclusive jurisdiction over civil matters when the amount in controversy does not exceed $200; 
  • Concurrent jurisdiction with the county courts when the amount in controversy exceeds $200 but does not exceed $10,000; 
  • Exclusive jurisdiction over forcible entry and detainer (eviction) cases; 
  • Concurrent jurisdiction over repair and remedy cases; and 
  • Concurrent jurisdiction over truancy cases. 

Trials in justice courts are not “of record.” Appeals from these courts are by trial de novo in the constitutional county court, the county court at law, or the district court. 

The justice of the peace also serves in the capacity of a committing magistrate, with the authority to issue warrants for the apprehension and arrest of persons charged with the commission of felony or misdemeanor offenses. As a magistrate, the justice of the peace may hold preliminary hearings, reduce testimony to writing, discharge the accused, or remand the accused to jail and set bail. In addition, the justice of the peace serves as the coroner in those counties where there is no provision for a medical examiner, serves as an ex officio notary public, and may perform marriage ceremonies for additional compensation.

County-Level Courts

County-Level Courts

Constitutional County Courts

The Texas Constitution provides for a county court in each of the 254 counties of the state, though all such courts do not exercise judicial functions. In populous counties, the “county judge” may devote his or her full attention to the administration of county government. 

Generally, the constitutional county courts have: 

  • Concurrent jurisdiction with justice courts in civil cases where the matter in controversy exceeds $200 but does not exceed $10,000; 
  • Concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts in civil cases where the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $5,000; 
  • General jurisdiction over probate and guardianship cases; 
  • Juvenile jurisdiction; and 
  • Exclusive original jurisdiction over misdemeanors, other than those involving official misconduct, where punishment for the offense is by fine exceeding $500 or a jail sentence not to exceed one year. 

County courts generally have appellate jurisdiction (usually by trial de novo) over cases tried originally in the justice and municipal courts. Original and appellate judgments of the county courts may be appealed to the courts of appeals. 

In 36 counties, the county court, by special statute, has been given concurrent jurisdiction with the justice courts in all civil matters over which the justice courts have jurisdiction. In counties with a population of 1.75 million or more, the county court has jurisdiction over truancy cases.

Statutory County Courts And Probate Courts

Under its constitutional authorization to “...establish such other courts as it may deem necessary... [and to] conform the jurisdiction of the district and other inferior courts thereto,” the Legislature created the first statutory county court in 1907 to relieve the county judge of some or all of the judicial duties of office. 

Statutory County Courts include:

  • County courts at law 
  • County civil courts at law 
  • County criminal courts at law
  • County criminal courts
  • County criminal courts of appeal

Section 25.003 of the Texas Government Code provides statutory county courts with jurisdiction over all causes and proceedings prescribed by law for constitutional county courts. In general, statutory county courts that exercise civil jurisdiction concurrent with the constitutional county court also have concurrent civil jurisdiction with the district courts in: 1) civil cases in which the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $200,000, and 2) appeals of final rulings and decisions of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission. However, the actual jurisdiction of each statutory county court varies considerably according to the statute under which it was created. A few statutory county courts even hear felony cases. In addition, some of these courts have been established to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction in only limited fields, such as civil, criminal, or appellate cases (from justice or municipal courts). 

In general, statutory probate courts have general jurisdiction provided to probate courts by the Texas Estates Code, as well as the jurisdiction provided by law for a county court to hear and determine cases and matters instituted under various sections and chapters of the Texas Health and Safety Code.
 

District Courts

District Courts

District courts are the primary trial courts in Texas. The Constitution of the Republic provided for not less than three or more than eight district courts, each having a judge elected by a joint ballot of both houses of the Legislature for a term of four years. Most constitutions of the state continued the district courts but provided that the judges were to be elected by the qualified voters. (The exceptions were the Constitutions of 1845 and 1861 which provided for the appointment of judges by the Governor with confirmation by the Senate). All constitutions have provided that the judges of these courts must be chosen from defined districts (as opposed to statewide election). In many locations, the geographical jurisdiction of two or more district courts is overlapping. 

District courts are courts of general jurisdiction. Article V, Section 8 of the Texas Constitution extends a district court’s potential jurisdiction to “all actions” but makes such jurisdiction relative by excluding any matters in which exclusive, appellate, or original jurisdiction is conferred by law upon some other court. For this reason, while one can speak of the “general” jurisdiction of a district court, the actual jurisdiction of any specific court will always be limited by the constitutional or statutory provisions that confer exclusive, original, or appellate jurisdiction on other courts serving the same county or counties.

With this caveat, it can be said that district courts generally have the following jurisdiction:

  • Original jurisdiction in all criminal cases of the grade of felony and misdemeanors involving official misconduct;
  • Cases of divorce or other family law disputes;
  • Suits for title to land or enforcement of liens on land;
  • Contested elections;
  • Suits for slander or defamation; and
  • Suits on behalf of the State for penalties, forfeitures and escheat.

Most district courts exercise criminal and civil jurisdiction, but in the metropolitan areas there is a tendency for the courts to specialize in civil, criminal, juvenile or family law matters. Thirteen district courts are designated “criminal district courts” but have general jurisdiction. A limited number of district courts also exercise the subject-matter jurisdiction normally exercised by county courts.

The district courts also have jurisdiction in civil matters with a minimum monetary limit but no maximum limit. The amount of the lower limit has for many years been the subject of controversy, with differing opinions from the courts of appeal. House Bill 79 from the 82nd Legislature, 1st Called Session (2011), included a provision in Section 24.007(b) of the Government Code which was intended to resolve the dispute and to set the minimum jurisdiction of district courts at $500. However, there is still a potential conflict between Article V, Section 8 of the Texas Constitution (which gives the district courts jurisdiction of all actions…except in cases where exclusive) and the amendment. Therefore, there are still differing opinions as to whether the minimum monetary jurisdiction of the district courts is $200.01 or $500. In counties having statutory county courts, the district courts generally have exclusive jurisdiction in civil cases where the amount in controversy is $200,000 or more, and concurrent jurisdiction with the statutory county courts in cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $500 but is less than $200,000. 

The district courts may also hear contested matters in probate and guardianship cases and have general supervisory control over commissioners courts. In addition, district courts have the power to issue writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, injunction, certiorari, sequestration, attachment, garnishment, and all writs necessary to enforce their jurisdiction. Appeals from judgments of the district courts are to the courts of appeals (except appeals of death sentences). 

A 1985 constitutional amendment established the Judicial Districts Board to reapportion Texas judicial districts, subject to legislative approval. The same amendment also allows for more than one judge per judicial district.

Appellate Courts

Appellate Courts

The appellate courts of the Texas Judicial System are: 

  • The Supreme Court, the highest state appellate court for civil and juvenile cases; 
  • The Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest state appellate court for criminal cases; and
  • The courts of appeals, the intermediate appellate courts for civil and criminal appeals from the trial courts.

Appellate courts do not try cases, have juries, or hear witnesses. Rather, they review actions and decisions of the lower courts on questions of law or allegations of procedural error. In carrying out this review, the appellate courts are usually restricted to the evidence and exhibits presented in the trial court.

The Courts of Appeals

The Courts of Appeals

The first intermediate appellate court in Texas was created by the Constitution of 1876, which created a Court of Appeals with appellate jurisdiction in all criminal cases and in all civil cases originating in the county courts. In 1891, an amendment was added to the Constitution authorizing the Legislature to establish intermediate courts of civil appeals located at various places throughout the state. The purpose of this amendment was to preclude the large quantity of civil litigation from further congesting the docket of the Supreme Court, while providing for a more convenient and less expensive system of intermediate appellate courts for civil cases. In 1980, a constitutional amendment extended the appellate jurisdiction of the courts of civil appeals to include criminal cases and changed the name of the courts to the “courts of appeals.”

Each court of appeals has jurisdiction over appeals from the trial courts located in its respective district. The appeals heard in these courts are based upon the “record” (a written transcription of the testimony given, exhibits introduced, and the documents filed in the trial court) and the written and oral arguments of the appellate lawyers. The courts of appeals do not receive testimony or hear witnesses in considering the cases on appeal, but they may hear oral argument on the issues under consideration.

The Legislature has divided the state into 14 court of appeals districts and has established a court of appeals in each. One court of appeals is currently located in each of the following cities: 

  • Amarillo
  • Austin
  • Beaumont
  • Corpus Christi/Edinburg
  • Dallas
  • Eastland
  • El Paso
  • Fort Worth
  • San Antonio
  • Texarkana
  • Tyler
  • Waco
  • Houston (2)

Each of the courts of appeals has at least three justices—a chief justice and two associate justices. While 80 justices currently serve on the courts of appeals, the Legislature is empowered to increase this number whenever the workload of an individual court requires additional justices.

The Supreme Court

The Supreme Court

In most civil and juvenile cases, the Supreme Court has statewide, final appellate jurisdiction.

The Supreme Court of Texas was first established in 1836 by the Constitution of the Republic of Texas, which vested the judicial power of the Republic in “...one Supreme Court and such inferior courts as the Congress may establish.” This court was re-established by each successive constitution adopted throughout the course of Texas history and currently consists of one chief justice and eight justices.

The Supreme Court has statewide, final appellate jurisdiction in most civil and juvenile cases. Its caseload is directly affected by the structure and jurisdiction of Texas’ appellate court system, as the courts of appeals handle most of the state’s criminal and civil appeals from the district and county-level courts, and the Court of Criminal Appeals handles all criminal appeals beyond the intermediate courts of appeals.

The Supreme Court’s caseload can be broken down into three broad categories:

  • Determining whether to grant review of the final judgment of a court of appeals (i.e., to grant or not grant a petition for review); 
  • Disposition of regular causes (i.e., granted petitions for review, accepted petitions for writs of mandamus or habeas corpus, certified questions, accepted parental notification appeals, and direct appeals); and 
  • Disposition of numerous motions related to petitions and regular causes.

Much of the Supreme Court’s time is spent determining which petitions for review will be granted, as it must consider all petitions for review that are filed. However, the Court exercises some control over its caseload in deciding which petitions will be granted. The Court usually takes only those cases that present the most significant Texas legal issues in need of clarification.

The Supreme Court also has jurisdiction to answer questions of state law certified from a federal appellate court; has original jurisdiction to issue writs and to conduct proceedings for the involuntary retirement or removal of judges; and reviews cases involving attorney discipline upon appeal from the Board of Disciplinary Appeals of the State Bar of Texas.

In addition, the Court:

  • Promulgates all rules of civil trial practice and procedure, evidence, and appellate procedure; 
  • Promulgates rules of administration to provide for the efficient administration of justice in the state;
  • Monitors the caseloads of the courts of appeals and orders the transfer of cases between the courts in order to make the workloads more equal; and 
  • With the assistance of the Texas Equal Access to Justice Foundation, administers funds for the Basic Civil Legal Services Program, which provides basic civil legal services to the indigent.

The Court of Criminal Appeals

The Court of Criminal Appeals

To relieve the Supreme Court of some of its caseload, the Constitution of 1876 created the Court of Appeals, composed of three elected judges, with appellate jurisdiction in all criminal cases and in those civil cases tried by the county courts. In 1891, a constitutional amendment:

  • Changed the name of this court to the Court of Criminal Appeals;
  • Limited its jurisdiction to appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases only; and
  • Increased the number of judges to nine: one presiding judge and eight associate judges.

The Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest state court for criminal appeals. Its caseload consists of both mandatory and discretionary matters. All cases that result in the death penalty are automatically directed to the Court of Criminal Appeals from the trial court level. A significant portion of the Court’s workload also involves the mandatory review of applications for post-conviction habeas corpus relief in felony cases without a death penalty, over which the Court has sole authority. In addition, decisions made by the intermediate courts of appeals in criminal cases may be appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals by petition for discretionary review, which may be filed by the State, the defendant, or both. However, the Court may also review a decision on its own motion.

In conjunction with the Supreme Court of Texas, the Court of Criminal Appeals promulgates rules of appellate procedure and rules of evidence for criminal cases. The Court of Criminal Appeals also administers public funds that are appropriated for the education of judges, prosecuting attorneys, criminal defense attorneys who regularly represent indigent defendants, clerks and other personnel of the state’s appellate, district, county-level, justice, and municipal courts.