Bifurcated Court Systems: A Closer Look

Bifurcated court systems in which courts specialize in civil or criminal law are fairly uncommon.  Only two states have two separate high courts of final appellate jurisdiction (one for civil, one for criminal): Texas and Oklahoma.  The remaining 48 states have a single, unified high court of final appellate jurisdiction.

The merits of a bifurcated court system have been heavily debated by politicians, legal professionals, and political scientists.  Some of the arguments raised by proponents and critics of bifurcated court systems are summarized below.

Arguments For Bifurcated Systems

  1. Separate appellate courts that are specialized in criminal or civil matters allow for more efficient and expedited processing of cases
  2. Specialization and expertise in civil or criminal matters benefits the parties to a case, lawyers, and the legal system
  3. Staff sizes in bifurcated systems do not greatly exceed what they would be in a system with a single, unified court of final appellate jurisdiction because the caseload would remain the same regardless of the structure of the court system

Arguments Against Bifurcated Systems

  1. Bifurcated court systems are inefficient because they require additional court staffs and infrastructures
  2. Bifurcated court systems foster conflict between courts on issues that arise in both civil and criminal cases
    • Civil and criminal courts may have different interpretations of legal provisions that apply in both contexts (ex: standards for expert testimony)
    • Jurisdictional issues arise with cases that involve both civil and criminal matters, with courts  engaging in “hot potato” by sending cases back and forth between civil and criminal courts
  3. Judges who specialize in criminal or civil matters lack a broader perspective on law

Failed Attempts at Court System Reform

Over the past several decades, there have been attempts to reform of court system aimed at eliminating specialized courts and/or merging the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals into one unified high court of final appellate jurisdiction over both civil and criminal cases (similar to the original Texas Supreme Court, as described in the Texas Constitution of 1836).

At the Constitutional Convention of 1974, the proposal of a single supreme court was introduced; however, the voters ultimately rejected the reform.  Since that point in time, several bills have been introduced during regular legislative sessions to reform the court system, none of which have received any real consideration.  For example, in 1993, 2003, 2011, and 2013, bills to eliminate the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and transfer its caseload and jurisdiction to the Texas Supreme Court were introduced.

Efforts to revise the structure of our state’s court system have not gained the same level of support as civil tort reform efforts and criminal justice reform efforts.  Some who support reform of the structure of our court system in theory question whether these reforms are practical given the size of the courts’ dockets and the existence of other systematic issues with the structure, scope of jurisdiction, and use of discretionary review utilized within the state’s courts.

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