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Overview of Texas Court System

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  • Thursday August 30th, 2012

Our court system is comprehensive, and interesting to learn about. Here is a bit of history:
In the Judiciary Act of 1789, the very first Congress established the Judicial Courts of the United States. They created the Supreme Court, choosing to have it consist of a Chief Justice and five ‘associate judges’. They created a middle tier of circuit courts (trial courts). The Judiciary Act was controversial at the time. It acknowledged the “official status” of state courts, yet reinforced the supreme authority of the Federal judiciary.

Today, each state court system in all 50 states operates independently, following the laws of that particular state and of course, laws of the Constitution. These courts are a judicial entity, considered the “third branch” of government. All but eight states have a multiple-level court structure (the other 8 states just have two tiers – trial court and supreme court).
State courts handle both criminal and civil cases. Minor cases are handled by limited jurisdiction, ‘small claims’ courts. State courts rely on the state legislature for funding. Legislatures give the courts authorization to enact rules of procedure.

Many state judicial structures are confusing, but the Texas model, which serves more than 23 million residents, is a labyrinth. In fact, the Lone Star State’s court system has been called one of the most complex in the United States, if not the world.

Three features of this system distinguish it from the national norm: it has two supreme courts (appellate courts of last resort), there is no uniformity of jurisdiction among the courts, and for the most part, its judges are chosen in partisan elections.

Today, Texas spends some $175 million so that its courts can enforce traffic laws, hear small and large claims cases in civil court, try capital murder suspects, investigate white-collar crime, monitor criminal parolees, and more. At the extreme, they are responsible for carrying out the death penalty.

In order to understand the Texas judicial system, you first need to understand how it is organized under Article V of the Texas Constitution. The following is a list of the six levels of state courts, starting with the highest:

• Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
• Courts of Appeals
• District-Level Courts
• County-Level Courts
• Municipal Courts
• Justice of the Peace Courts

In Part II of this article series, we will list and describe the various courts mentioned above, and explain the role and function of each one.

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