Overview of Texas Court System – Part II
In a previous article, the Court System Part 1, we explained how the courts came about and how they are divided/categorized. Now let’s look at each court in more detail so that we can understand how they function, and how they overlap.
TEXAS SUPREME COURT AND TEXAS COURT OF CRIMINAL APPEALS:
As mentioned earlier, the Lone Star State has two supreme courts, or what is known as a bifurcated appellate system. Oklahoma is the only other state in the nation with a similar system.
The Texas Supreme Court is the highest civil authority. Located in Austin, it is composed of nine justices. Five justices must be present in order to conduct business, and at least five justices must agree on a decision in each case. Once made, determinations are final. However, decisions can be appealed to the United States Supreme Court if there is a federal law question.
The Supreme Court 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. The court’s jurisdiction is chiefly limited to appeals from the Courts of Appeals. The Supreme Court may sit at any time of the year.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, located in Austin, is the criminal counterpart to the Supreme Court. It also is composed of nine judges. Cases may be heard by a three-judge panel, and two judges must agree on a decision. In addition, the court may sit en banc, meaning all of the judges are present and participate in the decision. When the court hears cases en banc, five judges must agree with a decision. The court must sit en banc during capital punishment cases. Such cases directly and automatically bypass the lower Courts of Appeals
Confusingly, jurisdiction of the court is both mandatory and discretionary. The court is required to hear all appeals in cases in which the death penalty was imposed, but it has discretion to hear appeals from the Courts of Appeals.
COURTS OF APPEALS:
Texas has 14 Courts of Appeals, each covering a geographic district. Every district has a chief justice and two or more justices, and every court has between three and 13 justices (there are 80 altogether); the number is set by statute. A three-justice panel, a majority of which must agree on a decision, hears all cases. These intermediate-level appellate courts hear appeals from both district-level and county-level courts.
As a practical matter, the Courts of Appeals are the final appellate review of criminal cases (other than death penalty cases) and many civil cases. Someone displeased with a decision of a Court of Appeals may seek review in the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, or the United States Supreme Court. However, the overwhelming majority of such requests are denied.
A total of 437 civil and criminal district courts are considered the state trial courts of general jurisdiction. District courts have exclusive jurisdiction for felony cases, land title cases, and election contest cases. But they share jurisdiction with the county courts, and in some case justice of the peace courts, for civil cases.
In some counties, district courts share jurisdiction with county-level courts for family law cases. These include divorces, child custody and support matters, adoptions and child welfare cases. Probate jurisdiction depends on the existence of a probate court.
The state has three different county-level courts: constitutional, county courts at law, and probate. Each of the 254 counties in Texas has one of these county-level courts, which are considered courts of record.
Constitutional County Courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanors with fines greater than $500 or jail sentences, civil actions between $200 and $5000, uncontested probate matters, and appeals from municipal courts. County Courts at Law have jurisdiction over civil matters under $100,000, limited jurisdiction over criminal matters, and appellate jurisdiction over municipal courts. Probate Courts limit jurisdiction to probate matters.
Municipal courts: These courts encounter more defendants than all other Texas courts combined. They are local, trial-level courts with jurisdiction over criminal misdemeanors with fines of less of than $500, and municipal ordinance violations. Typically, municipal court judges are appointed. Along with Justice of the Peace Courts, they occupy the lowest rung in the Texas court system.
The 885 Justice of the Peace (JP) Courts have jurisdiction over all civil actions involving claims less than $5000, small claims, preliminary hearings, and criminal misdemeanors with fines of less than $500.