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Texas Politics - The Justice System
appellate jurisdiction
concurrent jurisdiction
justice of the peace court
original jurisdiction
3.2    Local Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

At the lowest level of the judicial system in Texas are the local trial courts of limited jurisdiction, including Justice of the Peace courts and Municipal courts. The former are specified in the Texas Constitution, while the latter are creations of the state Legislature under its constitutional authority to create other courts deemed necessary.

Justice of the Peace Courts

Under the Texas Constitution each county is required to establish between one and eight Justice of the Peace precincts, depending on the county's population. In each precinct, either one or two Justice of the Peace courts must be established, depending on the precinct's population. The state's Office of Court Administration reports that there are approximately 823 Justice of the Peace courts for the 254 counties in Texas.

Justice of the Peace courts are local trial courts of very limited original jurisdiction, restricted to only Class C misdemeanor criminal cases. These are the least serious of misdemeanor offenses. Additionally, these courts have jurisdiction in minor civil matters, including small claims.

Other powers and duties include issuing search or arrest warrants and serving as the coroner in counties where there is no provision for a medical examiner.

Municipal Courts

The state Legislature, under its constitutional authority to "create such other courts as may be necessary," has created Municipal courts in each of the incorporated cities of the state. By 2006 there were Municipal courts operating in approximately 914 Texas cities and towns. The larger cities are served by multiple Municipal courts, the number depending on the municipality's population and needs.

Municipal courts have exclusive original jurisdiction in the enforcement of city ordinances. Fines of up to $2,000 may be assessed when municipal ordinances relating to fire safety, zoning, public health, or sanitation are violated.

Additionally, these courts, along with Justice of the Peace courts, have concurrent jurisdiction - when two types of courts have authority to try the same type of case - over Class C misdemeanor criminal cases originating within city limits, for which the punishment would be only a small fine.

Like their Justice of the Peace counterparts, municipal judges may issue search and arrest warrants. These courts have no jurisdiction in most civil cases, except in cases involving dangerous dogs - a classic example of the overly detailed nature and inconsistent structure of the Texas court system.

The Texas Constitution mandates that "[t]here shall be established in each county in this State a County Court ... and there shall be elected in each county, by the qualified voters, a County Judge, who shall be well informed in the law" (Article 5, Section 15). Thus, each of the 254 counties of the state has a single County court presided over by a county judge.

These courts have concurrent jurisdiction with Justice of the Peace courts and state District courts in civil cases in which the dollar value of the issue in dispute is small. Usually, the Constitutional County courts hear the probate cases (those related to wills) filed in each county, and they have original jurisdiction over all Class A and Class B misdemeanor criminal cases.

These courts generally have appellate jurisdiction in cases appealed from Justice of the Peace and Municipal courts. The main exception is in those counties where County Courts at Law have been established. Appeals take the form of a trial de novo (completely new trial), unless the appeal is from a designated Municipal court of record in which trial proceedings are recorded by a court reporter.

The county judge also serves as the administrative head of the county government. These administrative duties tend to occupy most of the county judge's time in the more populated counties. In response, the Legislature created County Courts at Law and statutory Probate courts to relieve the county judge of most (sometimes all) of the county judge's judicial duties.

County Courts at Law

The constitutional limit of a single county court for each of the state's 254 counties created a need for additional county courts in the more populous counties. Consequently, the Legislature has created over time additional statutory County Courts at Law in the larger counties to aid the single Constitutional County court in its judicial functions.

The legal jurisdiction of these statutorily-created County Courts at Law is usually concurrent with the jurisdiction of the County and District courts in the county. However, the jurisdictions of these special county-level trial courts are established by the statute that creates a particular court and can vary considerably. This adds considerable complexity to the state's lower court system.

Though the civil jurisdiction of County Courts at Law varies, it is usually more extensive than that of the Justice of the Peace courts, but less extensive than that of the state District courts. Generally, County Courts at Law have appellate jurisdiction in cases appealed from Justice of the Peace and Municipal courts.

Statutory Probate Courts

The part of the Texas court system governing probate, the disposition of wills, is one of the most complicated.

In most counties, the Constitutional County Court has original probate jurisdiction. In some counties, the Legislature has authorized County Courts at Law to share this original jurisdiction.

Additionally, the state District courts (see the next section) have original jurisdiction in probate cases, but only when the probate matter is transferred from a Constitutional County court and where the Legislature has granted the District court original control and jurisdiction over personal representatives.

Things get still more complex. The Legislature saw a need for yet another type of court to deal with probate matters in the state's six largest metropolitan areas. So, it created statutory Probate courts. These courts have original and exclusive jurisdiction over their counties' probate matters, guardianship cases, and mental health commitments.

In summary, the Texas Constitution grants the Legislature the authority to determine which Texas courts have jurisdiction over probate matters. So, depending on how the Legislature assigned jurisdiction to the courts in a particular county, probate matters might be heard in the County court, County Court at Law, statutory Probate court, or District court.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 116
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