Texas has one of the most complicated judicial systems in the United States, if not the world. Even figuring out which county court to file your lawsuit in might be a challenge.
Since its creation in the late 1800s, the basic structure has been expanded periodically on an ad hoc basis.
Texas’s Court Structure
Texas has two high courts – the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals. The Supreme Court has jurisdiction over both civil and juvenile matters. The Court of Criminal Appeals has jurisdiction over criminal matters. There are nine judges on each court. There is only one state with a similar high court structure, and no other state has this many high court judges.
Having two high courts has its pros and cons. Operating two high courts complicates the administration of the judicial system. Since neither court is truly supreme, Texas’s high courts cannot resolve conflicts that arise when they reach different conclusions on a particular point of law.
In contrast, having two high courts allows each to bring specialized knowledge to different cases, which is to the benefit of litigants. Moreover, compared to other states, both courts can consider a larger number of appeals than would be feasible if there were a single high court. In the end, this approach allows each court to give greater certainty to the law by accepting cases presenting new or complicated legal issues or legal issues on which the intermediate appellate courts disagree.
Five Levels of Judicial Review
Most American jurisdictions have only three levels of judicial review, while Texas has five. At each level, there are specific courts for handling different types of cases. Cases can be filed in more than one overlapping court.
Lowest Level: Justice Courts
Justice Courts are the lowest level of court in Texas. Each county must have at least one Justice Court. These courts have exclusive jurisdiction over small claims matters, which are cases with less than $5,000 in controversy. A Justice Court also has jurisdiction over traditional civil cases with less than $10,000 in controversy. Unlike traditional courtrooms, Justice Courts judges do not have to be lawyers and can only grant monetary relief. Thus, petitioners should not file complex cases in Justice Courts and cannot obtain injunctions or determine title to a property.
Second Level: County Courts
At the county level, there are two types of county courts for civil matters: Constitutional County Courts and County Courts at Law.
A Constitutional County Court hears cases with a controversy amount between $200 and $5,000. Unlike the Justice Courts, judges here are not required to be lawyers. Injunctions can, however, be issued by these judges. They can also hear appeals from the local justice courts.
Third Level: County Courts at Law
There are County Courts at Law in some counties. As needed, the Texas Legislature creates these courts for a specific purpose – usually to hear probate cases. Once a county court at law has been established and empowered to hear probate matters, it can automatically hear cases involving estate issues, such as personal injury resulting in death or incapacity.
Additionally, Texas has district courts, which are courts with general jurisdiction and can hear virtually all types of cases. They can hear any civil matter so long as there is more than $500 in controversy or if the other courts cannot hear it. This includes disputes regarding the title to a property. District court judges must be attorneys.
In Texas, not every county has a district court – all the larger counties have at least one, but some smaller counties share one.
Texas has fourteen intermediate appellate courts whose structure and disposition of cases are complicated by overlapping geographic jurisdictions and dockets.
In neither the federal judicial system nor any other state’s judicial system is there an intermediate appellate court district that overlaps geographically. Texas, however, has two intermediate appellate courts with identical geographic jurisdictions and three with overlap. The number of cases filed in each of the fourteen courts also varies greatly.
The assignment of district courts to intermediate appellate courts is also puzzling. Texas’s intermediate appellate court districts run through many of the state’s multi-county trial court districts. Therefore, several district courts answer to more than one intermediate appellate court. Texas has nine administrative regions that do not coincide with the intermediate appellate court districts, further complicating matters. Similar to the appellate court districts, the administrative regions also cut through multi-county trial court districts.
There are seven types of trial courts in Texas:
- District courts
- Constitutional county courts
- Statutory county courts
- Statutory probate courts
- Justice of the peace courts
- Small claims courts
- Municipal courts
A portion of the subject-matter jurisdiction of each type of trial court overlaps with the subject-matter jurisdiction of at least one other kind of trial court. Further, the subject-matter jurisdiction of constitutional county courts and statutory county courts varies widely from county to county. Texas’s 254 counties have nearly that same number of different trial court structures due to these variations.
To complicate matters further, district courts, the trial courts of general jurisdiction, sit in overlapping districts. Often, a single county is divided into two or three district court districts, with each district comprising a different group of counties.
Unlike the federal court system and the court systems in other major states, Texas does not have special courts or procedures for complex or specialized litigation.
Court Administration and Funding Issues
There are nine administrative judicial regions in Texas, each with a regional presiding judge responsible for efficiently managing litigation within that region.
Since the Governor appoints regional administrative judges for a fixed term, the efficient administration of justice in these regions is not in the hands of an individual accountable to another judicial officer. Court administration is handled at the local level by judges who are accountable to local officials for financial matters but not really accountable to anyone other than their fellow judges for the efficient administration of justice.
In the past, many states relied predominantly on local revenues to fund their courts. States have moved away from local funding to ensure adequate funding for the courts, facilitate the efficient administration of justice, and enhance judicial accountability to the state supreme court.
However, Texas continues to rely heavily on locally generated revenues rather than state-generated revenues to fund its judicial system. State, county, and city governments share the cost of judicial salaries, retirement, personnel, and facilities. Court revenue is kept at the local level, while other revenue passes to the state government.
Reform Efforts in the Past
Due to these and other peculiarities, there have been numerous calls for reform of Texas’s judicial system. As early as 1918, the Texas Bar Association adopted a proposal to replace the judicial article of the Texas Constitution, Article V, with another judicial article. According to one commentator, the new judicial article embodied unification, the flexibility of jurisdiction, the assignment of judicial personnel, and responsible supervision of the whole system by the Supreme Court. Since 1918, several attempts have been made to rewrite Article V.
The central themes of these reform measures were eliminating the two-high-court structure by combining the Court of Criminal Appeals with the Texas Supreme Court, providing a coherent system of judicial administration by the Supreme Court, granting criminal jurisdiction to the intermediate appellate courts, structurally unifying Texas’s trial courts, and implementing a method instead of partisan elections for selecting judges.
Consulting an Attorney
Since navigating the Texas legal system is difficult, a Texas lawyer can help you determine where to file. A Texas lawyer can speed up your case, prevent misfiling, and even represent you in court, if necessary.