The Texas Judicial System: Foundations & Structure

In the United States, the concept of federalism, where powers are divided and authority is shared between the levels of government, has shaped the institutions that make up our government.  We have a national (or federal) government consisting of a legislative branch, executive branch, and judicial branch in addition to fifty state governments.  Each state has the authority to establish the structure of its own state government.

The U.S. court system is based on judicial federalism, in which judicial authority is shared between various levels of government. Both the federal and state government operate courts of law.

Legal Foundations of Texas Judiciary

Our current judicial system in Texas, similar to our federal court system, is established in the Texas Constitution, with the Texas legislature granted the power to create additional courts and outline their jurisdiction, or authority to hear a case, as needed.  

“The judicial power of this State shall be vested in one Supreme Court, in one Court of Criminal Appeals, in Courts of Appeals, in District Courts, in County Courts, in Commissioners Courts, in Courts of Justices of the Peace, and in such other courts as may be provided by law.

The Legislature may establish such other courts as it may deem necessary and prescribe the jurisdiction and organization thereof, and may conform the jurisdiction of the district and other inferior courts thereto.”

– Texas Constitution of 1876, Article V, Section 1

Structure of the Texas Court System

Texas’s judicial system is one of the most complicated, complex, inefficient, and confusing legal systems in the United States.  The Texas Constitution and Texas legislature have established a complex structure of local, county, and state courts. Due to many state courts having overlapping geographical coverage and jurisdiction, it can be difficult to identify the court in which a particular case should originate.  

Local Trial Courts

There are two different types of local trial courts in Texas: municipal courts and justice of the peace courts. 

Municipal courts are established by city charters and serve cities, whereas justice of the peace courts are established by the Texas constitution and serve precincts. Municipal courts exercise exclusive original jurisdiction over municipal ordinance violations and have limited original jurisdiction in civil actions.  Justice of the peace courts have original jurisdiction in civil actions of up to $10,000.  Both municipal courts and justice of the peace courts exercise original jurisdiction in criminal misdemeanor cases that are punishable by fine only and perform magistrate functions, such as issuing search and arrest warrants, conducting preliminary hearings, and setting bail.

County-level Trial Courts

There are three different types of county-level trial courts in Texas: constitutional county courts, statutory county courts, and statutory probate courts. 

Constitutional county courts are established by the Texas constitution.  Constitutional county courts exercise original jurisdiction in civil actions between $200 and $10,000, original jurisdiction over juvenile matters, and exclusive original jurisdiction in misdemeanor cases with fines greater than $500 or a jail sentence.  County constitutional courts also serve as appellate courts for local courts within the county.  Because not all local trial courts are courts of record, some of these appeals are considered appeals de novo; in these cases, the court must review questions of fact and questions of law.  County constitutional courts also perform probate functions (handling matters such as wills, estates, and guardianship). 

Statutory county courts and statutory probate courts are established by the Texas legislature.  Statutory county courts have jurisdiction in civil, criminal, original, and appellate actions prescribed by law for constitutional county courts.  Additionally, these courts have jurisdiction over civil matters up to $200,000, with some courts having a higher maximum jurisdiction amount.  Statutory probate courts are limited in scope and solely perform probate matters.

State Trial Courts

In Texas, district courts function as the trial court at the state level.  District courts are established by the Texas constitution.  The geographical region served by a district court is established by the Texas legislature; the Texas constitution mandates that every county has at least one district court.  These courts exercise original jurisdiction in civil actions over $200, divorce, land titles, and contested elections; felony criminal matters; and juvenile matters.  Thirteen district courts are designated criminal district courts – they focus on criminal cases.  Other district courts are directed to give preference to certain specialized areas, as prescribed by law.

State Appellate Courts

In Texas, there are two types of appellate courts: courts of appeals and high courts. 

Initially, courts of appeals were established by the Texas constitution, and their jurisdiction was limited to appeals of civil actions; however, the Texas constitution was amended to grant the Texas legislature the power to establish new courts of appeals and to expand the jurisdiction of these courts to include criminal cases.

Texas has fourteen courts of appeals, each of which serves a geographic region encompassing multiple counties and district courts.  Similar to U.S. courts of appeals, Texas courts of appeals hear intermediate appeals from trial courts within their geographic regions.  

Texas has two high appellate courts – the Texas Supreme Court, which is granted final appellate jurisdiction in civil and juvenile cases, and the Court of Criminal Appeals, which is granted final appellate jurisdiction in criminal cases.