State Court Practice
Austin Criminal Defense: The Charles Johnson Law Firm
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The Charles Johnson Law firm is available to help you in every State, District and County Court at Law in every county in Texas. The following is an overview of the State of Texas Court Structure:
The appellate courts of the Texas Judicial System are: (1) the Supreme Court, the highest state appellate court for civil and juvenile cases; (2) the Court of Criminal Appeals, the highest state appellate court for criminal cases; and (3) the 14 courts of appeals, the intermediate appellate courts for civil and criminal appeals from the trial courts.
Appellate courts do not try cases, have juries, or hear witnesses. Rather, they review actions and decisions of the lower courts on questions of law or allegations of procedural error. In carrying out this review, the appellate courts are usually restricted to the evidence and exhibits presented in the trial court.
The 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 14 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 14 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.
The 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 and limited its jurisdiction to appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases only. Today, the court consists of one presiding judge and eight associate judges.
The Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest state court for criminal appeals. 8 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, 9 over which the Court has sole authority. In6 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.
The 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."
Each court of appeals has jurisdiction over appeals from the trial courts located in its respective district. The appeals heard in these courts are based upon the "record" (a written transcription of the testimony given, exhibits introduced, and the documents filed in the trial court) and the written and oral arguments of the appellate lawyers. The courts of appeals do not receive testimony or hear witnesses in considering the cases on appeal, but they may hear oral argument on the issues under consideration.
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: Amarillo, Austin, Beaumont, Austin, Eastland, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Texarkana, Tyler, and Waco. In addition, two courts are located in Austin, and one court maintains two locations—one in Corpus Christi and one in Edinburgh.
Each of the courts of appeals has at least three judges—a chief justice and two associate justices. There are now 80 judges serving on the 14 intermediate courts of appeals. However, the Legislature is empowered to increase this number whenever the workload of an individual court requires additional judges.
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 county-level courts consist of the constitutional county courts, the statutory county courts, and the 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.
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. As of September 1, 2008, there were 444 district courts in Texas. The 80th Legislature authorized the creation of three additional new courts on September 1, 2007, but judges had yet to be appointed or elected to fill the vacancies. Another court was authorized to be created on September 15, 2008.
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; 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, or family law matters. Twelve 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 is currently unclear. The courts of appeals have split opinions on whether the minimum amount in controversy must exceed $200 or $500. 11 In those counties having statutory county courts, the district courts generally have exclusive jurisdiction in civil cases where the amount in controversy is $100,000 or more, and concurrent jurisdiction with the statutory county courts in cases where the amount in controversy exceeds $500 but is less than $100,000.
The district courts may also hear contested matters in probate 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 sentences of death).
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.
Constitutional County Courts
The Texas Constitution provides for a county court in each of the 254 counties of the State, though all such courts do not exercise judicial functions. In populous counties, the "county judge" may devote his or her full attention to the administration of county government.
Generally, the "constitutional" county courts have concurrent jurisdiction with justice courts in civil cases where the matter in controversy exceeds $200 but does not exceed $10,000; concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts in civil cases where the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $5,000; general jurisdiction over probate cases; juvenile jurisdiction; and exclusive original jurisdiction over misdemeanors, other than those involving official misconduct, where punishment for the offense is by fine exceeding $500 or a jail sentence not to exceed one year. County courts generally have appellate jurisdiction (usually by trial de novo) over cases tried originally in the justice and municipal courts. Original and appellate judgments of the county courts may be appealed to the courts of appeals.
In 36 counties, the county court, by special statute, has been given concurrent jurisdiction with the justice courts in all civil matters over which the justice courts have jurisdiction.
Statutory County Courts and Probate Courts
Under its constitutional authorization to "...establish such other courts as it may deem necessary...[and to] conform the jurisdiction of the district and other inferior courts thereto," the Legislature created the first statutory county court in 1907. As of September 1, 2008, 222 statutory county courts and 18 statutory probate courts were operating in 84 (primarily metropolitan) counties to relieve the county judge of some or all of the judicial duties of office. Statutory county courts include county courts at law, county civil courts at law, county criminal courts at law, county criminal courts, and county criminal courts of appeal.
Section 25.003 of the Texas Government Code provides statutory county courts with jurisdiction over all causes and proceedings prescribed by law for constitutional county courts.
In general, statutory county courts that exercise civil jurisdiction concurrent with the constitutional county court also have concurrent civil jurisdiction with the district courts in: 1) civil cases in which the matter in controversy exceeds $500 but does not exceed $100,000, and 2) appeals of final rulings and decisions of the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission. However, the actual jurisdiction of each statutory county court varies considerably according to the statute under which it was created. In addition, some of these courts have been established to exercise subject-matter jurisdiction in only limited fields, such as civil, criminal, or appellate cases (from justice or municipal courts). In general, statutory probate courts have general jurisdiction provided to probate courts by the Texas Probate Code, as well as the jurisdiction provided by law for a county court to hear and determine cases and matters instituted under various sections and chapters of the Texas Health and Safety Code