County Government in Texas: The Basics

County governments serve a smaller area than states and a larger area than cities.  Article 9 of the Texas Constitution of 1876 grants the Texas Legislature the power to create counties, subject to limitations relating to geographic size.  Today, Texas has a total of 254 counties – more counties than any other state.

Texas counties operate under Dillon’s rule.  Texas counties are considered extensions of state government: their structure is defined by the statutory law, and they may only exercise the powers that have been specifically granted to them by the state of Texas.  As such, Texas counties use a one-size-fits-all approach to local governing authority.

Commissioner’s Court

County governments in the United States usually use one of three basic structures:

  • commission system, in which an elected commission serves as the governing body of the county
  • council-administrator system, in which an elected council appoints an administrator to oversee the daily operation of county government
  • council-elected executive system, in which voters elect both the members of the council and the executive

In Texas, we use a commission system: county government is led by a commissioner’s court, which consists of four county commissioners, each of whom represents one of four geographic districts within the county, and the county constitutional court judge.  The commissioner’s court acts as a legislative body and an executive body.

Legislative Functions

  1. Limited authority to pass ordinances that govern the county
  2. May determine the types and rates of taxes to fund county government
  3. Pass the annual county budget

Executive Functions

  1. Administer state and federal funds for local government use (this relates to fiscal federalism)
  2. Oversee the various county departments and agencies
  3. Hold final responsibility for the conduct of elections in the county

County Commissioners

County commissioners are chosen using single-member district plurality elections, in which voters in each district cast one vote for their most preferred candidate, and whichever candidate wins the most votes wins the election.  Note that “most” is not the same thing as “majority” (50% + 1 vote).  To uphold the principle of “one person, one vote”, these commissioners’ districts are redistricted every ten years, following an election.

Each county commissioner is responsible for running the county government in his or her district. County commissioners do not have to work collectively but may act solely in the interests of their precincts; however, in some counties, commissioners agree to pool resources and make decisions collectively in the interest of the whole county.

County Constitutional Court Judge

The constitutional county court judge is elected by the county in an at-large election.

The county constitutional court judge serves as the presiding officer of the commissioner’s court, certifies elections, and appoints temporary commissioners when a commissioner resigns before the end of an elected term.  In smaller counties, the judge for the county constitutional court also performs judicial duties.

Other Key County Officers

In addition to a commissioner’s court, most Texas counties also have an auditor, who oversees county finances; a tax assessor, who collects county taxes and user fees; a county clerk, who maintains county records and, in some counties, oversees elections; justices of the peace, who acts as judicial officers for minor criminal and civil cases; constables, who act as judicial officers for minor criminal and civil cases and assists the justice of the peace in his or her duties; a sheriff, who oversees county law enforcement; and a county attorney, who represents the county in legal activities and offers legal advice to county government.

Functions of County Governments

Early county governments in Texas were given responsibility for performing several functions on behalf of the state, including:

  • operating justice of the peace courts, county constitutional courts, county statutory courts, statutory probate courts, and district courts
  • maintaining vital records, including marriage licenses, birth certificates, death certificates, and property deeds
  • collecting funds for state government, including property tax and motor vehicle registration fees
  • conducting elections
  • road construction and maintenance

As Texas’s population increased throughout the 20th century, “county operations expanded to include such additional programs as health and social welfare, solid-waste management, and housing and community development” (Smith, County Organization, n.d.).

Texas counties are granted limited authority to set property tax rates and may employ the power of eminent domain, or the ability to expropriate private property for public use with the payment of compensation.

County Finances and Operations

Day-to-day county operations are funded primarily by a small portion of property taxes collected by that county.  Because of this, some counties have significantly more revenue and can provide significantly more services than other counties.

County government may choose to contract with private businesses to provide basic services to county residents either through privatization, in which a service is transferred from public to private ownership, resulting in residents working with private entities to receive these services, or contract outsourcing, in which the county enters into a contract with a private entity and agrees to pay the private entity in exchange for the delivery of a service.

Citizens within counties may create special districts to provide additional services that are not provided by the county government.

Counties and cities may also enter into interlocal agreements to share services.  We see this occur frequently with property tax collections, with counties collecting property taxes and fees on behalf of county government, municipal government, and special districts.

County-Level Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

Constitutional County Courts

The Texas Constitution states that each of the 254 counties in Texas will operate a county constitutional court, each of which will have a constitutional county judge who presides over the constitutional county court in addition to the county commissioners’ court during the office’s four-year term (we’ll come back to county commissioners’ courts when we look at local government later in this course).

Generally, constitutional county courts exercise both original and appellate jurisdiction:

  • concurrent original jurisdiction in civil actions between $200 and $10,000 and cases involving juvenile matters
  • exclusive original jurisdiction in misdemeanor cases (other than those involving official misconduct) with possible fines greater than $500 or a jail sentence of no more than one year
  • general jurisdiction over probate matters (i.e., wills, estates, and guardianship cases)
  • appellate jurisdiction of decisions made by local courts within the county

Thirty-six constitutional county courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the justice of the peace courts in civil law cases.  In counties with at least 1.75 million residents, constitutional county courts may also hear truancy cases.

“In at least seventy-four counties the constitutional county court’s judicial duties have been given, in whole or in part, to statutory county courts” (Womack, n.d.); in these counties, constitutional county courts focus on administrative functions (i.e., running county government).

Statutory County Courts

Statutory county courts, as the name suggests, are created by the Texas legislature.  The first statutory county court was created in 1907.  Currently, we have 249 statutory county courts.

“The . . . jurisdictions of the statutory courts vary greatly from county to county, depending on the decisions of the county” (Womack, n.d.).  Generally, statutory county courts have jurisdiction in civil, criminal, original, and appellate actions prescribed by law for constitutional county courts.  Additionally, these courts have concurrent original jurisdiction over civil matters up to $200,000 and appellate jurisdiction of final rulings and decisions of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission, with some courts having a higher maximum jurisdiction amount.  Ultimately, the actual jurisdiction of a statutory court depends on what is prescribed in statute; as such, the jurisdiction of statutory county courts varies greatly.

Statutory Probate Courts

Statutory probate courts, which are created by the Texas legislature, are limited in scope and solely perform probate matters.  Currently, there are 18 statutory probate courts located in ten different counties.

Texas Courts: The Basics

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

Appellate Justices
(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.”