The existing Texas court system was established by an amendment to the state Constitution in 1891. Below is a description of the basic hierarchical structure of the court system.
- Supreme Court: The Texas Supreme Court is the highest state appellate court for civil cases. The Supreme Court is made up of nine judges, referred to as “justices,” who review the decisions of lower courts.
- Court of Criminal Appeals: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest state appellate court for criminal cases. The Court of Criminal Appeals consist of nine justices who review criminal decisions made by lower courts, post-conviction habeas corpus petitions, and criminal cases involving the death penalty.
- Courts of Appeals: Texas has 14 Courts of Appeals that hear both civil and criminal cases on appeal from the trial courts. Each of the Court of Appeals has at least three justices. There is currently a Court of Appeals in each of the following cities: Amarillo, Austin, Beaumont, Corpus Christi/Edinburg, Dallas, Eastland, El Paso, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Texarkana, Tyler, Waco, and two courts in Houston.
- Trial Courts: There are several levels of trial courts in Texas that have jurisdiction over different types of cases. The Government Code provides for courts in different counties to have slightly different jurisdiction, but each type of court generally hears the items listed below.
- District Courts: There are 507 Districts Courts that serve as the trial courts of general jurisdiction. Generally speaking, District Courts hear felony criminal cases and misdemeanors involving official misconduct; divorces; slander or defamation; contested elections; disputes over land titles or enforcement of liens on land; and suits on behalf of the State for penalties, forfeitures and escheat.
- Constitutional County Courts: The state Constitution provides for a county court in each of the 254 counties in Texas. Constitutional County Courts have jurisdiction over civil cases not exceeding $10,000 in damages, as well as uncontested probate matters.
- Statutory County Courts: Statutory County Courts were created by the Texas Legislature to increase judicial efficiency. These courts have overlapping concurrent jurisdiction with Constitutional County Courts and District Courts where the amount in controversy does not exceed $200,000. More specifically, Statutory County Courts hear workers’ compensation appeals, eminent domain cases, probate and family law matters.
- Probate Courts: Probate Courts were also created by the Texas Legislature to specifically handle probate proceedings. Not all counties utilize statutory Probate Courts, however, this court will have original jurisdiction of probate matters if such a court does exist in that county.
- Justice Courts: Justice Courts are responsible for hearing civil cases that do not exceed $10,000 in damages. The jurisdiction of Justice Courts overlaps with that of Constitutional County Courts and District Courts based on the amount in controversy at issue. Justice Courts also have original jurisdiction of eviction cases, matters involving deed restrictions, and misdemeanor criminal cases where the punishment is only a fine.
- Municipal Courts: Municipal Courts are the lowest courts in the hierarchal system, created to handle violations of municipal ordinances.
In 2015, the Texas courts disposed of approximately 9.97 million cases, with less than 0.5% disposed by jury trial. Below are the most common types of lawsuits filed in Texas, and other highlights and trends as reported in 2015 by the Texas Judicial Council.
- The Supreme Court of Texas granted review in only 10 percent of petitions filed for review. Most of the cases granted review were from the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin and 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio.
- The Texas Criminal Court of Appeals’ caseload consisted of 80 percent of matters filed for mandatory review, which included appeals filed by petitioners sentenced to the death penalty and post-conviction habeas corpus petitions.
- The 14 Courts of Appeals districts in Texas saw a 3 percent decrease in civil appeals and a 5 percent drop in criminal appeals. Nearly 34 percent of the civil cases were reversed on appeal, while over 50 percent of the criminal appeals were affirmed.
- The overall number of lawsuits filed in the District Courts has dropped by 6 percent in the last five years, with the primary drop occurring in family and juvenile cases. Family cases accounted for almost 40 percent of the District Court civil caseload, and drug offenses made up 30 percent of the District Court criminal caseload. The number of divorce cases filed in District Courts hit its lowest point since 1989, while child protection cases increased by almost 10 percent in the past five years.
- The majority of the 87,503 cases filed in the Constitutional County Courts were criminal in nature, including drugs, DWI, traffic violations, and other misdemeanors. 40 percent of those criminal cases were dismissed.
- The Statutory County Courts’ dockets consisted of nearly 60 percent of civil cases related to debts and criminal matters (i.e. bond forfeiture, occupational license, nondisclosure). Drug offenses made up 20 percent of the criminal docket—over three-fourths were possession of marijuana cases.
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