The Texas Constitution and Texas legislature have established a complex court system consisting of various local, county, and state courts, some of which have concurrent jurisdiction. These courts can be classified into four different types: state appellate courts, which include the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, and 14 courts of appeals; state trial courts of general and special jurisdiction, which include 477 district courts; county trial courts of limited jurisdiction, which include 254 constitutional county courts, 249 statutory county courts, and 18 statutory probate courts, and local trial courts of limited jurisdiction, including 802 justice of the peace courts and 944 municipal courts. That’s A LOT of courts!
Bifurcated High Courts
At the top of the Texas judicial system sit the two highest courts in the state: the Texas Supreme Court, which handles matters involving civil law, and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handles matters involving criminal law. Bifurcated court systems in which courts specialize in civil or criminal law are fairly uncommon. Texas is one of two states that have separate high courts of final appellate jurisdiction for civil law and criminal law (the other state with a bifurcated court system is Oklahoma).
Judicial Selection in Texas
Except for most municipal court judges (whose appointment is defined in individual city charters and typically involves appointment by the city council), judicial appointment in Texas occurs through partisan elections (i.e., with their names appearing alongside a political party on the ballot). All judges except those serving on the Texas Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals are chosen by voters who reside within a geographic district; justices on the Supreme Court or Court of Criminal Appeals are chosen partisan elections that are conducted statewide (similar to the governor).
Qualifications to run in judicial elections vary depending on the court in question and “increase with the level of the court” (Womack, n.d.), as summarized in the table below.
|Type of Judge||Qualifications|
|Justices of the Peace||No special qualifications|
|Municipal Court Judges||Must be licensed to practice law in Texas; other qualifications vary|
|Constitutional County Court Judges||Must be “well informed of the law of the State”, which “has not been interpreted to include a law license or formal study of law” (Womack, n.d.)|
|Statutory County Court Judges||Must be licensed to practice law in Texas
Must have practiced law for four years preceding the election
At least twenty-five years old
|District Court Judges||U.S. and Texas citizen
Must be licensed to practice law in Texas
Must have practiced law as a lawyer or judge for four years preceding the election
(Courts of Appeals, Supreme Court, & Court of Criminal Appeals)
|U.S. and Texas citizen
Must be licensed to practice law in Texas
Must have practiced law as a lawyer or judge of a court of record for at least ten years preceding the election
At least thirty-five years old
While there are benefits to partisan elections, many have criticized Texas’s use of partisan elections to select Texas judges. Among these critics is former Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Wallace B. Jefferson, who referred to this judicial selection method as “a broken system.”
Removal of Texas Judges
Like the method of selection of state judges, removal methods vary depending on the court in question. There are six ways in which judges in Texas may be removed from office (not including resignation or death):
- Failure to be reelected: As previously discussed, partisan elections are used to select most of our judges. Voters may choose not to reelect a judge in a general election
- Removal by the Texas Supreme Court: The Texas Supreme Court may remove state district court judges for incompetence, official misconduct, or negligence
- Impeachment process: Judges may be impeached by the Texas House of Representatives and removed with a 2/3 vote by the Texas Senate
- Removal by the governor: District court judges and justices serving on state appellate courts may be removed by the governor for willful neglect of duty, incompetence, habitual drunkenness, oppression in office, or other reasonable cause on the address of 2/3 of the Texas House of Representatives and Texas Senate
- State commission on judicial conduct: The state commission on judicial misconduct investigates and prosecutes allegations of judicial misconduct. If the commission recommends removal or retirement, the Texas Supreme Court chooses a tribunal of various courts of appeals judges to review the recommendation and enter a judgment. These judgments may be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court
- Retirement: District court judges and justices serving on state appellate courts are required to retire when they reach seventy-five years of age (the legislature is given the authority by the Texas Constitution to reduce this age to seventy years)