Criminal cases are brought against defendants for violations of the state’s penal code. The most serious offenses are felonies and carry prison sentences. Minor offenses, which can be punished by jail time as well as fines are called misdemeanors. Civil lawsuits are private cases brought by plaintiffs against respondents for violating statutory laws, contractual agreements or administrative regulations contained in Texas’ Administrative Code.
There are 5 levels in Texas’ Court system. Some courts have original jurisdiction which allows these courts to be the court hearing a dispute for the first time. Other courts have appellate jurisdiction which allows them to review the decisions of lower courts to determine constitutional and statutory principles and procedures were correctly interpreted and followed during the course of the trial. Texas has a bifurcated court system which means that criminal and civil cases reach separate appellate bodies as a last resort. For example, the final court of appeals for criminal offenses in Texas is the Court of Criminal Appeals; and in civil matters, the Texas Supreme Court hears final appeals.
Texas has a bifurcated court system. Why might this type of court structure be so rare among the states?
Municipal Courts are established by state law and have original and exclusive jurisdiction over matters involving city ordinances . Ordinances are the local laws enacted by a city council. Many are not courts of record, therefore any appeal sought out of a municipal court will be heard de novo which means a new trial over again because of the lack of a record from the municipal court. Each county in Texas is required to provide at least one Justice of the Peace Court, but larger counties may have as many as 16. Justice of the Peace magistrates are elected to four-year terms from precincts drawn by Commissioners Court. JPs are not required to have any formal legal training but are expected to participate in professional development. JP courts are not courts of record and like municipal courts, are not courts of record.
Constitutional County Courts exist in each county and are presided over by a county-wide elected judge, elected for a four-year term. This judge presides over the commissioners court. Judges are not required to be lawyers, but are required to be ‘well-informed in the law’. There is jurisdictional overlap between Constitutional Courts, justice and district courts. Statutory County Courts or county courts-at-law and are created by statute, thus their jurisdiction is inconsistent across them. Some cannot hear civil disputes involving more than $2500, other can hear cases up to $100,000. Drunken driving cases are largely what are handled. Judges are elected in county-wide races and must be lawyers. Statutory Probate Courts limited to matters involving the settling of estates in probate, guardianship cases, and mental health commitment.
District courts have been designated in recent years as ‘family law’ courts to handle divorce and child custody matters, or criminal or civil in a broader sense so as to distribute the dockets more evenly. Because of the backlog in dockets, criminal cases are increasingly being dealt with through plea bargaining , which allows criminal defendants to negotiate, through their attorney, a guilty plea in exchange for a more lenient sentence.
Courts of appeal are presided over by elected judges who serve 6-year terms. They must be at least 35 years old and have at least 10 years experience as an attorney or judge in a court of record. There are 14 courts with multi-county jurisdiction and hear criminal and civil appeals from the district courts, but the majority are criminal. The Texas Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Texas for civil matters and matters respecting juveniles. It is charged with developing administrative and rules of civil procedure. It appoints the Board of Law Examiners as well as having disciplinary authority over state judges through recommendations of the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The bench seats 9 justices, one of whom is the Chief Justice and are elected for staggered 6-year terms of office in partisan state-wide races. Members must be at least 35, and either a practicing attorney or judge of a court of record, or a combination of both for at least 10 years. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the final court of appeals for criminal matters in Texas. There are also 9 justices on the bench, one of whom is Chief Justice and serve staggered 6-year terms with the same qualifications for office as their counterparts on the Supreme Court.
Judges in Texas are elected in partisan races. When a vacancy occurs at a district-level court or higher, the Governor will appoint a temporary replacement. When a vacancy occurs at the county level, the county commissioners court will name a temporary replacement. Temporary replacements must stand for election during the next cycle.
County and District clerks are elected positions which are responsible for keeping court records or other documents that are recorded for the public record. County and district attorneys are responsible for prosecuting criminal cases within their jurisdictions; however, some counties do not have attorneys. If a county does have an attorney, it serves as the chief legal advisor to the commissioner's court, functions as the legal representative of the county in civil suits and may, in some instances, prosecute misdemeanors. County and district attorneys are elected positions. Bailiffs are the court officers who keep the peace and order in a court room and protect the judges and other participants from physical harm.
Grand juries are made up of 12 citizens, selected by a district judge from a list of prepared by a jury commission which was appointed by the local district judge or judges. Grand juries ensure that the government has sufficient evidence to warrant prosecution, which is a trial accusing someone of a criminal felony offense. If at least three-fourths (9 out of 12) of the jurors believe there is sufficient evidence to indict the individual, it will return a true bill or indictment . Misdemeanors are not typically handled by grand juries, and the process simply requires information from the prosecuting attorney, formally charging an individual based upon a complaint from a citizen. Grand juries typically meet on specified days for the duration of a district court’s term (3-6 months). Jury selection begins when both the prosecution and the defense begin questioning potential jurors through the process called voir dire, in which each side may choose to exclude a potential juror based upon preemptory challenges, which are other non-specific reasons that the attorneys have for feeling the potential juror may not be a good candidate for their case. In criminal trials, juries are expected to produce a unanimous decision of guilt in order to convict, arrived at based upon the standard of being sure beyond a reasonable doubt. This standard is lower for civil trials, which requires jurors to only be convinced by a preponderance of the evidence, and only 10 of the 12 members need to be convinced in civil trials at district level, or 5 of the six at the county level.
Civil and criminal trials, excepting trials involving capital murder, can be held without a jury. If the defendant or respondent waives their right to a jury trail, a bench trial is held, wherein the judge will determine guilt or innocence and impose a penalty. The process of trial involves each side presenting opening arguments, examining and cross-examining witnesses, the presentation of evidence and summation. In appellate trials, there is no jury and evidence is not re-presented. The appellate process is different. In appeals, judges merely review the record and decisions made by the lower court to determine if constitutional and statutory requirements were met. Most civil or criminal trials are appealed to one of the 14 intermediate courts; however, cases involving the death penalty are automatically appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Cases that reach the Texas Supreme Court are primary through petition for review , which are appeals made by the losing side charging that a legal or procedural mistake was made by the lower court; however, 4 of the 9 justices must agree that this has occurred before the Court can review the case. In appellate court, oral arguments are presented by each side, during which time, justices can ask questions. After hearing each side’s argument, the justices will consider them along with the court record and briefs and will, after some time, issue an opinion. In addition to hearing appeals, the Texas Supreme Court will also issue writs of mandamus which are orders requiring some lower court or state official to take some action.
Because judges are elected in Texas, contributions can play a significant role in these elections exposing Texas judicial system to charges of influence by special interests. Establishment-oriented justices who were traditionally elected with large support from major law firms typically took a ‘strict constructionist’ view when interpreting the law. By the 1970s, this viewpoint had begun to erode and justices began taking a more ‘activist’ approach, according to business and industry who began losing more cases in court to ‘consumers’ on matters of liability. After the resignation of high profile Democrats on the high court’s bench combined with electoral realignment, the Texas Republicans managed to win a majority of seats on the high court resulting in a return to favoring business and industry in liability suits. By 1987, tort reform was successfully passed in the legislature, limiting the monetary liability of governments, business and industry, capping punitive damage awards and limiting access to the courts for what were deemed ‘frivolous’ lawsuits. Critics of this legislative action have argued that consumers have been hurt by this new law, but business and industry say that it has brought down the cost of doing business in Texas.
Minorities were actively seeking more representation to the bench and used the federal judiciary to try to force change. Minorities and women face the high costs of political campaigns, polarized voting along ethnic lines in statewide races, the low rates of minority participation in elections as well as their disproportionate representation in the legal field have minimized their success, which has been largely achieved by the result of gubernatorial appointment. Contemporary governors have had very few opportunities to appoint justices, but of those they have made, few have been minorities. The first Hispanic was appointed by Mark White in 1984, and the first African American was appointed in 1990 by Bill Clements. The first Hispanic was seated on the Texas supreme court in 1984 and on the Texas court of criminal appeals in 1991.The first African American was seated on the Texas court of criminal appeals in 1990 and on the Texas supreme court in 2001. By 2010, 17% of the state judges at the county court level and higher were Hispanic, but less than 4% were African American.
The first woman to serve as a state district judge in Texas was Sarah T. Hughes of Dallas, who was appointed to the bench in 1935 by Governor James V. Allred. She resigned when taking a federal district appointment and had the distinction of swearing in President Johnson on the death of John F. Kennedy. Ruby Sondock of Houston was the first woman to serve on the Texas supreme court, appointed by Bill Clements. Democrat Rose Spector, a state district judge from San Antonio, became the first woman elected to the supreme court in 1992. Sharon Keller became the first woman elected to the Texas court of criminal appeals 1994. In 2010, Harriet O’Neill and Eva Guzman were the only women on the supreme court.
Strict limits on the amount of campaign contributions that can be accepted may reduce the appearance of influence peddling and reform could build and restore public confidence. Non-partisan election of judges would guard against partisan bickering and decrease the possibility of poorly qualified candidates winning office as the result of straight-ticket voting by members in the electorate. Merit selection plans, where the governor would initially appoint, but the judge would be required to run later in a retention election, could also help. Critics say groups would likely still be able to influence the selection and nomination of members of the judiciary as well as potentially hinder the ability of women and minorities to retain their seat.
The Texas court of criminal appeals reversed 42 percent of the cases appealed to it during the first quarter of the twentieth century, when Texas had a harsh system of criminal justice that often reflected class and racial bias. In one of its most significant rulings ( Edgewood v. Kirby), the Texas supreme court in 1989 unanimously ordered major, basic changes in the financing of public education. The lawsuit was brought against the state by poor districts against a property tax–based finance system that had produced huge disparities in local education resources. In 2003, the school finance law came under attack again ( West Orange Cove ISD v. Alanis), this time from school districts contending that the “Robin Hood,” share-the-wealth requirement and inadequate state aid were forcing many districts to raise local school maintenance tax rates to the maximum $1.50 per $100 valuation. They argued this amounted to, again, an unconstitutional statewide property tax. The court agreed, and the legislature had to restructure funding again, this time using business taxes to replace a large portion of property taxes. Finally, in TEA v . Leeper, the Texas supreme court in 1994 upheld the right of Texas parents to educate their own children. Ending a 10-year legal battle, the court overturned a Texas Education Agency ruling that home schools were illegal.
Arrested suspects must be taken before a magistrate to be informed of the offense with which they are charged and told their legal rights. The suspect will plead to the charges and bail will be set. All criminal defendants have the right to a trial by jury, but, except in capital murder cases, may waive a jury trial and have their cases decided by a judge. Defendants may plead guilty, not guilty, or nolo contendere (no contest). Prosecutors and defense attorneys settle many cases through plea bargaining. A jury can return a verdict only if all jurors agree that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If a jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict, the judge must declare a mistrial. In that case, the prosecution must seek a new trial with another jury or drop the charges. In a jury trial, a defendant may choose to have the punishment set by the jury; if not, it is determined by the judge. Jury trials are required in capital murder cases, which are punishable by death or life in prison. Defendents may plead guilty, not guilty or no contest (nolo contendre) to the charges they face. Probation can be given to individuals convicted of a crime; they may or may not have served time in jail but are required to meet supervisory standards and conditions that might include travel restrictions or associates.