About Texas Courts
Texas courts can be found in every county in Texas. This includes all 254 counties, some bigger than states. Most are located in rural areas.
As of 2021, Texas has 3,210 judges—more than any other state—plus associate judges and senior judges. They are very busy. In the 2018 fiscal year: district judges resolved, on average, roughly 1,900 cases per judge; statutory county judges nearly 2,100 per judge; justices of the peace over 2,800 cases per judge; and municipal judges over 3,600 cases per judge. In all, Texas judges handled 8.6 million cases in 2018. To put that figure in perspective, it’s 23 times the number of cases handled by all the federal courts in the country.
Types of Texas Courts
There are three types of courts in Texas, generally. This includes the courts of last resort–the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. There are intermediate courts of appeals. And there are trial courts.
Texas Supreme Court
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.
Texas 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.10 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.
Texas 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.”
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:
- Corpus Christi/Edinburg
- El Paso
- Fort Worth
- San Antonio
- 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.
Texas 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 countylevel 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.
About Texas Trial Courts
There are close to two thousand courts in Texas. This includes district courts, county courts, county courts at law, municipal courts, and probate courts.
Texas District Courts
District courts are the highest level trial court in Texas. Texas district courts hear a wide variety of cases. This can include family law and divorce cases, civil disputes, and criminal cases.
The Texas legislature assigns every county in Texas a district court. More populous counties typically have more than one district court located in the county. Less populous counties may share a district court located in an adjoining county.
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.
Texas County Courts
There are 254 counties in Texas. Each county has its own county court.
Texas county courts hear significant criminal cases, other than felonies. They also hear civil cases where the amount in controversy is less than certain dollar limits. These limits are not uniform. They vary from one county court court to another county court.
These courts often specialize in hearing certain types of cases in the more populous areas.
The county courts are located in the county they serve.
Texas County Courts at Law
Unlike Texas county courts that are established by the Texas Constitution, many counties have one or more county courts at law.
Texas county courts at law handle the same types of cases that county courts handle. The jurisdictional dollar amounts vary from one court to another.
Texas Justice of the Peace Courts
Texas justice of the peace courts are authorized by the Texas Constitution.
JP courts handle minor criminal infractions and civil disputes, such as landlord-eviction proceedings. The JP may also serve arrest warrants and assist local law enforcement.
JP courts are located in the counties in which they serve. Less populated counties may only have one JP; whereas, more populous counties may have upwards of ten JPs.
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.
Texas Municipal Courts
Texas municipal courts are created by cities. They focus on minor traffic and criminal infractions and matters involving city ordinances.
Texas municipal courts are located in the cities in which they serve. The number of municipal courts in a city varies widely. More populous cities often have more than one municipal court.
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.