The Texas judicial system has been called one of the most complex in the United States, if not the world. It features five layers of courts, several instances of overlapping jurisdiction, and a bifurcated appellate system at the top level.
Traditionally, it has had a reputation for arbitrary "frontier justice"; in one notorious example, 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.
The structure of the system is laid out in Article 5 of the Texas Constitution.
The Legislature allows for the creation of municipal courts in each incorporated city in Texas, by voter approval creating such court. Within the city limits, these courts have shared jurisdiction with the JP courts only on Class C misdemeanor cases and on civil cases involving dangerous dogs, and have exclusive jurisdiction on cases involving city ordinances.
JP and municipal court cases are appealed to the county level.
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.
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. 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. County court at law judges 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, which handle matters of probate, guardianship, trust, and mental health. Statutory Probate Courts also have the jurisdiction of a district court in matters pertaining to an estate, such as personal injury cases resulting in death or mental incapacity, in trust litigation, and in any other matter involving a deceased or incapacitated person. There are no jurisdictional monetary limits on the types of lawsuits that a statutory probate court may hear.
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.
Unlike the lower levels, 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 This right is not afforded to criminal defendants in counties where there is a county court at law.
District Judges also exercise administrative power. They appoint and supervise the county auditor and oversee the operations of the adult and juvenile probation offices. Finally, the Texas Constitution grants them "supervisory" jurisdiction over the county commissioners court.
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. The set up in the East Texas districts has been heavily criticized as being friendly to "forum shopping."
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
14th - Houston
Appeals on civil cases are heard by the Texas Supreme Court, which also maintains responsibility for licensing attorneys and attorney discipline.
The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals hears appeals on criminal cases. Cases in which the death penalty was imposed are directly and automatically appealed to this court, bypassing the intermediate appellate court.
Jurisdictions are not shared between the two; all civil cases go to the Texas Supreme Court while all criminal cases go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. However, there is one area where the Texas Supreme Court impacts criminal law -- juvenile law. Juvenile proceedings are considered civil in nature; thus, the Supreme Court hears such cases. As a general rule, the Texas Supreme Court defers to the Court of Criminal Appeals when it comes to interpreting the Texas Penal Code in juvenile cases.
Oklahoma is the only other state with this type of appellate system at the highest level.