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Texas Politics - The Justice System
 
 
  Key Words and Phrases

administrative law
Administrative law is concerned with the substance and procedures of executive branch rule making, regulatory enforcement, and adjudication of disputes handled by administrative agencies rather than the courts. It also encompasses the conditions under which administrative actions can be reviewed by courts. As distinguished from legislative and judicial authority, administrative authority may include power to issue rules and regulations based on statutes, grant licenses and permits to facilitate the conduct of government business, initiate investigations of and provide remedies for complaints or problems, and issue orders directing parties to conform to governing statutes or rules. An administrative-law judge is a government official with quasi-judicial powers, including the authority to conduct hearings, make findings of fact, and recommend resolution of disputes concerning an executive branch agency's actions.
adversarial system
The adversarial system is a key feature of the Anglo-American common law tradition. The parties on either side of a legal action take the position of opponents or adversaries before the court which decides the winner of this legal conflict. The adversarial system contrasts with the inquisitorial system common in the European practice of law derived from Roman civil law. In an inquisitorial system the court itself more actively investigates whether the law has been violated and seeks to apply the remedies the law provides. Unlike the inquisitorial system in which accused parties must exonerate themselves before a judge or judges who function as both judge and prosecutor, in the adversarial system the opposing sides compete to convince an impartial judge or jury of the merits of their legal assertions of guilt, innocence, liability, obligation, and the like.
appellate jurisdiction
A court's jurisdiction is its authority to hear and decide cases. A court's appellate jurisdiction (if it has such authority) encompasses cases previously heard and decided by other lower courts. Hence appellate jurisdiction entails the power of a court, board, or commission to review, uphold, or overturn decisions made by other authorities.
bail
To win release from custody prior to trial an accused person may in many cases deposit or pledge some form of capital (money or property) with a court as a promise to return and submit to the court's jurisdiction at a specified time and place. If the accused fails to appear, bail is forfeited and paid over to the court. The amount of bail is determined by a judge but both the U.S. and Texas constitutions require that bail should be reasonable, that is, appropriate to the crime. Bail may not be available in all courts for all crimes, especially the most heinous. As with release to personal recognizance, a grant of bail my rest on a court's judgment of the accused's reputation, potential threat to the community, and flight risk.
capital felony
A capital felony is a crime which may be punishable by execution. In Texas and other states that provide for execution as a punishment option, capital murder is today the only crime punishable by death.
case law
Case law is a record of precedents, the previous decisions of the courts in similar cases. It is used to justify resolution of newly arising disputes according to the patterns established in previous cases. Common law systems in the U.S. and elsewhere grant the force of law to this record of previous judicial and administrative decisions.
civil law
In contrast to criminal law which deals with harms against the state or crimes against persons punishable by the state, civil law deals with disputes between private parties involving issues of private rights. In contrast to common law, civil law also refers to the body of law developed from Roman law and used in continental Europe and most former colonies of European nations, including the Canadian province of Quebec and the state of Louisiana. The basis of law in civil-law jurisdictions is statute, not custom and precedent. Under a Roman-derived civil law system, judges apply principles embodied in statutes or legal codes rather than turning to case law and precedent.
common law system
A common law system is a legal system founded not on laws made by legislatures but on judge-made laws which in turn are based on custom, culture, habit, and previous judicial decisions. The U.S. (except Louisiana) borrowed and built on the English common law system. Though much of what was originally common law has been converted to statutory laws made by legislatures, the common law tradition, based upon precedent and embodied in case law, is still the foundation of the American legal system. Under a common law system, when a court decides and reports its decision concerning a particular case, the case becomes part of the body of law and is used as a precedent in later cases involving similar matters. This use of precedents is known as stare decisis.
complaint
A complaint, like an indictment, is a method of charging someone with an offense. It is a legal document charging a person with violating a criminal law sworn to by someone--typically the aggrieved party or a police officer--who knows the facts of the crime charged either by direct knowledge or through investigation. A complaint is generally necessary before an officer can obtain an arrest warrant authorizing apprehension of a person accused of a crime.
concurrent jurisdiction
A court's jurisdiction is its authority to hear and decide cases. When two or more court systems (e.g., state and federal) both have original jurisdiction in a case or two or more agencies (e.g., local police and the FBI) both have the power to deal with a problem or case, they are said to have concurrent jurisdiction in the case. Ordinarily, the courts or authorities will decide among themselves which shall consider the case or consider it first.
criminal law
The law of crimes and their punishments defines criminal offenses, regulates the apprehension, charging, and trial of suspected offenders, and fixes punishment for convicted persons. Substantive criminal law defines particular crimes, and procedural law establishes rules for the prosecution of crime. In the U.S., substantive criminal law originated for the most part in common law, which was later codified in federal and state statutes. Modern criminal law has been shaped not only by case law but also by research in the social sciences, especially in the areas of sentencing, legal research, legislation, and rehabilitation.
discretionary review
Discretionary review is the authority of some appellate courts to decide which cases the court will consider and which it will not consider. A court may have complete discretion to choose from among the cases brought to it those that it will review or its discretion may be limited. For example, while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has wide discretion to hear criminal appeals, all death penalty cases must by law be reviewed by the Court.
en banc hearing
En banc is a French term meaning on the bench. A hearing is the formal examination of a civil or criminal cause before a judge according to the laws of a particular jurisdiction. When all of the judges who preside within geographic area covered by a court's jurisdiction gather to hear a case or matters related to a case they are said to meet en banc, that is, with the full authority of the court present. It refers to a case heard and decided by all of the judges of a court as opposed to judges acting individually. The U.S. Supreme Court and the two highest courts in Texas, the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, always sit en banc.
enhanced punishment
Texas has a habitual offender law that provides for enhanced punishment--additional prison time and other penalties--for repeat offenders. Until the 1970s, for example, a Texas offender's third felony conviction brought an automatic life sentence. Other states and the federal justice system have implemented similar schemes for punishing recidivism.
felony
A serious criminal offense, such as burglary or theft with a value above $1500, sexual assault or murder. Usually felonies are identified by degree of seriousness (first, second and third). Texas law specifies these three degrees, plus capital felony (for premeditated murder only, the most serious type of felony punishable by execution) and state jail felony (the least serious type of felony).
indictment
In criminal law, an indictment is a formal written accusation submitted to a court by a grand jury alleging that a specific person has committed a specific crime, usually a felony. An indictment is a method of charging someone with the commission of one or more offenses and indicating to the court that there are sufficient grounds to proceed with a trial. An indictment is one of three principal methods of charging offenses in the U.S. The others are an information (a written accusation resembling an indictment, prepared and presented to the court by a prosecuting official) and, for petty offenses, a complaint by an aggrieved party or by a police officer.
justice of the peace court
In Texas, as in Anglo-American legal systems generally, a justice of the peace who presides in justice court is a local magistrate empowered chiefly to administer criminal or civil justice in minor cases, administer oaths, fix bail, perform marriages, and so on. In Texas, each county has between two and sixteen justice courts, depending on population. In incorporated towns and cities in Texas, the state also provides for the creation of municipal courts in addition to justice of the peace courts.
misdemeanor
A relatively minor criminal offense, like possession of small amounts of marijuana, assault without bodily injury, and theft of goods and services whose value does not exceed $1500. Texas law specifies three classes of misdemeanors (A, B, and C) depending on severity.
Missouri Plan
A method of judicial selection that seeks the best qualified judges while maximizing judicial independence and still allowing some degree of direct accountability to the citizens. Despite some variations from state to state, all such plans involve nomination by a judicial selection committee, appointment (usually by the governor with ratification by the legislature), and retention elections for the appointed judges after one or more years of service.
ordinance
An ordinance, generically, is an authoritative decree, direction, or law promulgated by a governmental authority. More specifically, the term refers to a regulation enacted by a municipality or other local government. As with legislature-made statutes, ordinances have the force of law but must comply with state and national laws. Municipal and other local ordinances are issued under the authority derived from a grant of power (such as a city charter) by a sovereign entity (such as a state).
original jurisdiction
A court's jurisdiction is its authority to hear and decide cases. The original jurisdiction of a court encompasses cases that start (are first heard) in that court rather than some lower or other court.
personal recognizance
When a judge is reasonably confident that someone accused of a crime will appear for trial without added precautions the judge may release the accused on his or her own personal recognizance instead of requiring imprisonment or bail. Usually this occurs if the crime charged is not violent, the accused has a good reputation in the community, and the accused is not considered a threat to the community or a flight risk. If the person released on personal recognizance fails to appear in court, a warrant may be issued and he or she would be liable for payment of security or even jail time to assure future court appearances.
precedent
The principle of precedent is a key element of common law systems according to which previous judicial decisions influence current and future judicial decisions unless previous decisions are explicitly overruled. Precedent is a basis for stability in law, built on the expectation that judgments will be consistent with one another over time unless there is reason for change. Specifically, past court decisions in similar cases--the case law dealing with a particular type of dispute--are used to justify a similar approach to resolving current disputes of the same or similar types.
recidivism
Recidivism refers to a return to criminal activity by a person who has been convicted of and punished for a crime. Policy makers are concerned with the recidivism rate as a measure of the success or failure of efforts to rehabilitate criminal offenders. The recidivism rate refers either to the frequency at which criminals re-offend or the percentage of criminals who re-offend.
state jail felony
To save money and reduce overcrowding in the state prison system, the Texas Legislature in 1993 reformed sentencing laws to create a class of non-violent, non-sex offender crimes called state jail felonies and a new type of cheaper-to-operate minimum security prison facility to house those sentenced to state jail time. The offenders diverted from Texas prisons by these changes include low level drug offenders (like those convicted of possession of under one gram of cocaine) and property offenders (like those convicted of burglary of a building). Most of those convicted of a state jail felony serve probated sentences but judges have the discretion to sentence offenders to serve up to two years in a state jail.
statutory law
The body of laws created by a legislature, as opposed to those laws originating from the constitution (constitutional law) or some other source. An individual law created by a legislature is referred to as a statute.

Texas Politics:
© 2009, Liberal Arts Instructional Technology Services
University of Texas at Austin
3rd Edition - Revision 103