Confused about the difference between state and federal courts? Read this.

Copyright 2018 (all rights reserved)

By Rudy Apodaca

(published as a commentary on October 20, 2018 in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle)

     Until the day comes when partisan elections for judges are things of the past, Harris County voters will continue to be called upon to do considerable work before casting their votes in judicial races, if those votes are to be meaningful. To that end, an overview of the state’s judicial system might be helpful.

     An explanation of the federal courts will make it easier to understand Texas’ court structure. Also, the fact that the United States has two independent court systems often creates confusion, primarily because the two systems share common names for their respective courts.

     For example, the federal 10th Circuit Court of Appeals is not the same as Texas’ 10th Court of Appeals, which is located in Waco. To distinguish the two courts, the federal court is often referred to as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

     Our federal courts were established under the Constitution and by laws enacted by Congress. For the most, these courts handle cases involving federal statutes or constitutional questions. They have no direct connection to state courts, which have their own jurisdictions under each state’s constitution and statutes.

     Although the Constitution established only the U.S. Supreme court as the third branch of government, it also gave Congress the power to establish the lower-level appellate and trial courts.

     The Supreme Court is the nation’s highest court and consists of nine justices. This court handles appeals from the U.S. Courts of Appeal, as well as special appeals or writs from administrative agencies or the federal trial courts. Sometimes known as SCOTUS, this court, along with the lesser courts of the federal system, have the jurisdiction to declare as unconstitutional any law enacted by Congress or any act of the president.

     The next judicial tier consists of 13 federal courts of appeal, which include 12 circuit courts located in 12 sections of the country designated as “circuits.” These courts handle appeals from rulings or trials originating in the federal trial courts. There’s also the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, which stands alone and handles special appeals.

     Completing the federal system are 94 trial courts, each designated as a U.S. district court, which scattered around the country in 94 districts, including four in Texas. These courts handle both criminal and civil cases filed by federal criminal prosecutors and by attorneys representing litigants in civil disputes.

     Generally, the differences between trial courts and appellate courts under both the federal system and Texas’ system can be simply stated: Appellate courts don’t hold trials but only handle appeals from the lower courts. Trial courts in the federal system, on the other hand, hold trials but don’t handle appeals. Texas’ trial courts hold trials, and in some instances hear appeals from justice of the peace courts, probate courts and municipal courts.

     Texas’ two highest courts are appellate courts. They are the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Because appellate courts don’t conduct trials, they don’t consider witnesses testimony and exhibits introduced as evidence. Instead, the appeals they hear are based solely on the trial record ― written transcripts and exhibits of trial court proceedings. They also hear oral arguments of opposing counsel.

     The Texas Supreme Court, made up of nine elected justices, has jurisdiction over all civil cases originating in the lower courts, including appeals from Texas’ 14 intermediate appellate courts and administrative agencies. In some cases, it addresses extraordinary writs and certain cases directly from the trial courts. Interestingly, this court has no jurisdiction over criminal cases.

     In addition, the state supreme court has administrative control over the State Bar of Texas, has sole authority for licensing attorneys, and it appoints the members of the Board of Bar Examiners. The court also promulgates various rules governing civil trials and civil appeals.

     At least five of the nine justices are required to render the court’s decision. If a vacancy arises outside the time frame of a regular election, the governor appoints a replacement, subject to senate confirmation.

     The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is this state’s highest court for appeals of criminal cases. These include cases initially originating from rulings, decisions or verdicts in the trial courts or from decisions or rulings of Texas’ 14 intermediate appellate courts.

     The court’s jurisdiction includes mandatory review of applications for post-conviction habeas corpus relief. It has discretionary review of all decisions made by Texas’ intermediate appellate courts in criminal cases. The court may also review a lower court’s decision on its own motion (the court decides if it wants to review the case) without a party appealing the decision.

     In conjunction with the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals also promulgates rules for criminal cases.

     The court consists of nine judges. It decides cases in panels of three judges, two of which must concur in the court’s decision. At times, the entire court may decide cases en banc, if the court deems it necessary.