“The Texas Court System”, John Polewski, The Texas Bar Journal. May 2003.
The Texas Court System: A Primer
By John Polewski
Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in the February 2003 Bar Journal. As a result of the editing process, the earlier version did not properly describe Municipal Courts of Record or appeals from those courts. We regret the error.
There are many different types of courts in Texas. This article is intended as a quick overview of the court system and is not comprehensive. You should be aware that Texas has specialty courts not mentioned here, including probate courts, foster care courts, and others. For more details on the Texas court system, visit the website of the Office of Court Administration at www.courts.state.tx.us.
Local Trial Courts
At the lowest level are the Justice of the Peace courts. These courts are meant to handle small claims (no claim over $5,000 is allowed) and Class C misdemeanors, and are by far the most “user friendly” for nonlawyers. The rules are simple, there are no fancy legal documents filed (in fact, the parties can state their positions orally), and people quite often represent themselves without a lawyer.
Also at the local level are Municipal Courts, which hear traffic cases and fine-only criminal offenses.
There are two types of Municipal Courts in Texas: Municipal Courts of No Record and Municipal Courts of Record.
An appeal from a Justice of the Peace Court or a Municipal Court of No Record goes to the County Court of Appeals for an entirely new trial, or a trial de novo. Appeals of decisions made by Municipal Courts of Record are conducted in County Court based on errors reflected in the record (or transcript) of the original trial, rather than with a new trial.
County Courts or County Courts at Law, were originally created to handle cases of a limited size. In very large cities such as Dallas and Houston, these courts now have unlimited jurisdiction and can hear any size case. In many smaller counties throughout Texas, County Courts still have limited jurisdiction, meaning they cannot award damages over a given amount, no matter what a jury decides.
District Courts were originally intended to handle the really big cases, and there is no limit on the size of case that state District Courts can handle in any place where there is a District Court. District Courts are also the courts which hear felony criminal cases and family law cases — divorces, child support, marital property disputes, etc. In most Texas counties the district judge is a “jack of all trades,” and handles all of these types of cases, but in the bigger counties the district courts have been divided into specialties.
Once a judgment is entered either in one of the County Courts or in one of the District Courts, it can be appealed to one of 14 appellate districts in the state, depending on where the trial was held.
From there, of course, if one side or the other is not satisfied with the decision of the Court of Appeals, they can appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (if it is a criminal case) or the Texas Supreme Court (for civil cases). Like the U.S. Supreme Court, these Texas high courts hear a small fraction of the appeals that are made from the Courts of Appeals. More often than not, the Court of Criminal Appeals or Texas Supreme Court will refuse to hear the appeal, and at that point the case is over.
John Polewski is a board certified personal injury trial attorney with offices in DeSoto and Midlothian, Texas.
U.S. Supreme Court
Supreme Court of Texas
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Office of Court Administration
Court Structure of Texas Chart