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Texas judicial system

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.

Municipal and Justice of the Peace Courts

Each county is required to have at least one justice of the peace (JP) court; the most populous counties may have as many as 16 (each county is divided into between one and eight precincts, and each precinct may have either one or two JP's). These courts handle small claims cases exclusively, issue marriage licenses exclusively, and handle "Class C" misdemeanor cases (these involve fines only, no jail time) on an exclusive basis in all areas except those where a city has a municipal court; in those instances jurisdiction is concurrent (shared; generally, if a local officer issued the citation, the municipal court hears the case, while if a deputy sheriff or state law enforcement officer issued the citation, the JP court hears the case). In addition, the JP serves as coroner for areas with no provision for a medical examiner (generally rural counties). There is no requirement that a JP be an attorney.

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.

County Courts

The Texas Constitution requires each county to have a single constitutional county court. This court presided over by a "county judge", who is elected at-large by the voters of the county. 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. There is no requirement that the judge of the Constitutional County Court be an attorney.

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.

District Courts

The state trial courts of general jurisdiction are the 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.

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.

Moreover, district judges may remove county officials , officials of a general-law municipality , and municipal court judges under certain circumstances.

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.

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. 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

Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and Texas Supreme Court

Texas has a bifurcated appellate system at the highest level.

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.

References

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