The Texas judicial branch is the least understood of the three branches of government in our state. This is because of the fact that there are so many different layers of courts, with separate (or sometimes shared) responsibilities. And probably also because most of us don’t imagine ourselves ever needing to deal with it.
The judges presiding over these various courts have the power to seize our property, fine us, sometimes imprison us, or in rare cases, sentence us to death.
So whether you agree with these penalties or not, its exceedingly important to have impartial judges who respect and protect our Constitutional rights above all else.
The framers of the Texas Constitution saw fit to make judges stand for election, and we aim to help voters understand the responsibilities of the people they are voting for.
There are about 4 levels of courts from bottom to top. Let’s start at the bottom.
LEVEL 1: Justice Court and Municipal Court
The Justice Court is presided over by your local Justice of the Peace. This court cannot sentence anyone to prison or death. Court functions:
- Hear criminal cases involving misdemeanor offenses with fines below $500 (shared jurisdiction with Municipal Courts)
- Hear cases involving civil actions below $10,000
- Weddings and other magistrate functions
Each city in Texas has been granted permission by the Legislature to create a Municipal Court. This court cannot sentence anyone to prison or death. Court functions:
- Hear criminal cases involving misdemeanor offenses with fines below $500 (shared jurisdiction with Justice Court)
- Hear cases involving violations of city ordinances
- Truancy (shared jurisdiction with Justice Court)
- Magistrate functions
LEVEL 2: County-Level Court and District Court
All appeals of LEVEL 1 court rulings go to the County-Level Courts.
There are 254 counties in Texas, and each of them has a County Court created by the Constitution. However, there are many populous counties which have been granted additional courts by the Legislature to handle the caseload. So there are 513 County-Level Courts in all, each with 1 judge presiding.
As we said before, rulings from LEVEL 1 courts are appealed at this court. But there are some cases which originate here, bypassing the lower courts. This is called “original jurisdiction”.
County-Level Courts can sentence people to prison, but not death. County-Level Court functions:
- Original jurisdiction in civil actions between $200 and $10,000
- Original jurisdiction in misdemeanors with fines above $500 or jail sentences
- Hear civil cases between $200 and $200,000 (some courts have higher maximums)
- Juvenile matters (shared jurisdiction)
There is another court on this same level which does not her appeals, rather, certain cases originate here: the District Court.
The District Court is the first stop for felony cases. There is a District Court in every county. Some counties have more than one District Court. Some District Courts preside over more than one county.
The District Court can sentence people to prison and/or death. District Court functions:
- Original jurisdiction in felony criminal matters
- Original jurisdiction in contested elections
- Original jurisdiction in civil actions over $200 (with no maximum).
- Original jurisdiction in divorce cases
- Original jurisdiction in land title disputes
- Juvenile matters (shared jurisdiction with County Courts)
LEVEL 3: Courts of Appeals
All appeals from LEVEL 2 courts (with the exception of death sentences) go to 1 of 14 regional Courts of Appeals.
No cases originate in this level. True to the name, these courts hear only appeals.
There is no uniform number of judges for these 14 courts. There are 80 judges between them, elected by the voters in each of those 14 regions.
LEVEL 4: Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals
All civil appeals from LEVEL 3 go to the Texas Supreme Court. All criminal appeals from LEVEL 3, (and all death sentence appeals from LEVEL 2) go to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
This means Texas has two separate but equal high courts. Neither court overrules the other. Each of these high courts has 9 justices, elected statewide.
Again, no cases originate at this level, and their rulings are final.
Federal courts generally have no authority to review rulings from Texas’ high courts. Really, only the United States Supreme Court can hear an appeal from this level, and then only if there is a question of US law.