Law & the Media in Texas — Court Jurisdiction

The Criminal Process

The Court System: Jurisdiction

Municipal Court

Within general law cities (defined by the legislature as cities with 5,000 or less population) the mayor may serve as city judge. When the city has a separate judge he or she may be appointed by the city council or elected by the people.

Within home rule cities(defined by legislature as cities with 5,000 or more population with a charter) the judge or judges of the municipal court are usually appointed by the city council.

Municipal courts are usually called city courts in general law cities and may be called traffic, city or municipal courts in home rule cities. The municipal court has jurisdiction within the territorial limits of the city in all cases involving violation of city ordinances.

The court has concurrent jurisdiction with the justice of the peace courts of the precincts in which the city is situated in all criminal cases arising under the criminal laws of the state where the punishment is by fine only and does not exceed $200.

Justice of the Peace Courts

The county commissioners court, as the governing body of the county, must establish between one and eight precincts in each county in the state depending on the population of the county. The commissioners may designate two places in any one precinct if population warrants.

Justices of the peace are elected for four years.

A constable may be elected for each precinct or place. Constable positions may remain vacant and constables may serve more than one precinct.

Justices of the peace have original jurisdiction in Class C misdemeanors. Appeals may be made to county courts.

Even though a record may be kept, neither the municipal court nor the justice court is a court of record. Primarily this means that the testimony is not recorded by a court reporter and on appeal cases are retried as if the first trial did not exist. This is called trial de novo.

This means that reporters must be careful in handling coverage of events in lower courts, such as corporation and justice courts. An example is bond forfeiture. A person arrested for an offense may put up a cash bond and fail to appear for trial, at which time the bond may be forfeited. The disposition must be reported in that manner.

Justices of the peace may also conduct examining trials, imprison for nonpayment of fines and costs to enforce their authority, issue peace bonds, issue search warrants, set bonds in felonies and hold hearings in bond contests.

They also sit as judges of small claims court (small claims involve debts to $50 and wages and labor to $100 and the JP may command a court fee for settlement), handle civil matters where the amount in question is $200 or less.

They may hold inquests and—if the county has no medical examiner—order an autopsy.

They may also conduct marriages, for which they expect to be paid.

Justices of the peace do not have to be lawyers.

County Courts

County judges preside over county courts in some counties and in other counties courts-at-law have been established to handle civil and criminal cases.

In criminal matters, county courts have jurisdiction in misdemeanors. Cases may also be appealed from the municipal or justice courts to the county courts. Appeals from the county courts in misdemeanor cases are taken to the court of criminal appeals.

County courts handle matters of probate, appoint guardians of minors, declare persons non compos mentis (not of sound mind), settle accounts of executors and transact business pertaining to deceased persons. Under the mental health code, county courts may commit a person to a mental ward or hospital for 90 days.

The legislature may provide for courts-at-law to handle criminal and civil matters. Probate courts may be established in the same manner.

In counties where courts-at-law and/or probate courts have been established, the county judge may sit only at commissioners court (the meeting of the county commissioners) and handle the administrative duties of the county or may handle only some probate and mental health matters.

County judges, especially in smaller counties, may handle juvenile cases. Or another judge, usually in district court, may be designated to handle juvenile cases. Larger counties have juvenile courts.

County judges are required to be knowledgeable in the law, but they do not have to be lawyers. Judges of courts-at-law must be lawyers. All are elected and all elected county officials serve four-year terms.

District Courts

District courts have been established by the legislature throughout the state according to caseload demands. They, as county courts, are established by the legislature upon request from county commissioners.

A district may include more than one county, a single county or a county may have more than one district court. Larger counties have separate criminal and civil courts.

District courts have jurisdiction in felony cases. They also handle misdemeanors involving officials misconduct. District court judges preside over courts of inquiry.

District judges must be lawyers and are elected for four years.

Courts of Appeals

Courts of Appeal came into being on September 1, 1981, to replace the Courts of Civil Appeals. The new courts have jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters. The purpose of the change was to relieve the overcrowding of the Court of Criminal Appeals, which previously was the only appellate criminal court.

Misdemeanors are appealed directly from the county courts to a court of appeals. Felonies are appealed from district courts.

Texas has 14 courts of appeals with varying numbers of justices, depending on case loads.

Court of Criminal Appeals

This is the highest appellate court in Texas for handling of criminal cases. Its equivalent in civil law is the Supreme Court of Texas.

Nine judges (so called as opposed to the term justices for the Supreme Court) preside. They serve overlapping six-year terms and are elected state-wide. One of the nine is elected presiding judge.

The Court of Criminal Appeals hears death penalty cases directly from district court. Both the state and convicted person may appeal the decision of a court of appeals, but the high court may decline to hear a case without writing an opinion. The Court of Criminal Appeals also has the right to review a case from a court of appeals on its own motion if it thinks the case is important enough to rule on.

Courts on Line

Excellent information about the Texas court system is available on line at www.courts.state.tx.us/