Understand Texas courts to choose the best judges on the November ballot
(published as a commentary on October 20, 2018 in the online edition of the Houston Chronicle)
Copyright 2018 (all rights reserved)
Under Texas’ court structure, below the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals are the following courts: 14 courts of appeal, more than 450 state district courts, county courts, justice of the peace courts, the probate courts and municipal courts. There are also many administrative courts and a few specialty courts.
Texas is divided into 14 judicial districts. Harris County and its nine contiguous counties make up two districts, the 1st Judicial District and the 14th Judicial District. Each district has at least one Court of Appeals, identified by the district the court it serves. For example, the 14th Court of Appeals, which is also known as the Court of Appeals for the 14th District.
These courts have jurisdiction to review all criminal and civil appeals from the state’s district courts (except death sentences, which are reviewed directly by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest court in the state for criminal cases) and the county courts. Such appeals must be filed in the appeals court located in the district in which the criminal trial took place.
As with other appellate courts, appeals are based on the record and a review of the transcript of the trial proceedings. Here again, although the courts don’t receive new testimony, they do hold oral arguments, in which opposing counsel present their clients’ case.
Decisions from these appellate courts require a majority concurrence of judges sitting in what is termed a section, consisting of at least three judges.
Texas has two trial courts that are courts of record ― meaning that written transcripts are kept of all court proceedings. These two courts are the district courts and the county courts. They handle both jury and non-jury (or bench) trials.
District courts have appellate and original jurisdiction in all civil and felony criminal proceedings originating in the county where the courts are located. They also have supervisory control over the various county commissioners courts and jurisdiction to hear misdemeanor cases involving official misconduct.
These courts also have appellate jurisdiction over cases tried in justice of the peace courts or municipal courts. These appeals are usually “trial de novo,” which means that a new trial is held because trial transcripts aren’t kept by these courts, except for some municipal courts that are courts of record.
There is an important distinction to make at this point between the two sorts of county courts in Texas. There are the constitutionally designated county courts, known as commissioners court, one for each of Texas’ 254 counties. And this state also has 246 county courts created by the Texas Legislature and are commonly known as county courts-at-law. Theses have exclusive, original jurisdiction over all misdemeanor criminal matters, except those involving official misconduct. They also have jurisdiction, to varying degrees depending on the county, over civil cases.
The courts-at-law also have appellate jurisdiction over cases tried in justice of the peace courts or municipal courts. These appeals are usually “trial de novo,” which means that a new trial is held because trial transcripts aren’t kept by these courts, except for some municipal courts that are courts of record.
The Legislature created these at-law courts to relieve the constitutionally mandated county courts of their judicial duties, freeing them to perform the administrative functions of a given county. Each chaired by a county judge (Ed Emmett in the case of Harris County Commissioners Court), this is the governmental body that handles county business, budgets and expenditures.
On the general election ballot in Harris County, judges in county court races are identified as “Judge, County Criminal Court”, not “Judge, County Court-At-Law,” which is often the case in other counties.
Justices of the peace preside over courts that have jurisdiction over minor criminal offenses (misdemeanor cases punishable by a fine but not confinement) and minor civil cases (jury and non-jury), in which the monetary amount in question exceeds $200 but is not more than $10,000.