Friday, September 9, 2011

Texas Judicial Organization

I guess this will be an annual event since I made the same basic point about a year ago last May. Justice Willett's May 27, 2011 glib, scathing and comprehensive critique of our court "system" in his dissent in In re Coy Reece begins:
Intrepidity at the Alamo; entering the United States as the Republic of Texas; fifty-eight Texas-born recipients of the Medal of Honor; Bob Wills and George Strait; Nolan Ryan and Babe Didrikson Zaharias; five Super Bowl titles (sadly none this millennium); Dr Pepper and the “little creamery” in Brenham; deep-fried anything at the State Fair; a spirit of daring and rugged independence—the sources of Lone Star pride are innumerable.
Unfortunately, the juris-imprudent design of the Texas judiciary does not make the list. Today’s case is a byproduct of that recondite web, sparking a game of jurisdictional hot potato between us and our constitutional twin, the Court of Criminal Appeals. Truth be told—and this particular truth has been told repeatedly—the State’s entire Rube Goldberg-designed judicial “system” is beyond piecemeal repair; it should be scrapped and rebuilt top-to-bottom.  . . .
As one might imagine, our bizarre structure has generated some fanciful factoids—practical problems and offbeat jurisdictional oddities that clog the everyday inner workings of our judiciary. Consider:
• Texas has at least nine different types of trial courts, “although that number does not even hint at the complexities of the constitutional provisions and statutes that delineate jurisdiction of those courts.”40 Whether a given trial court has jurisdiction is a five-step inquiry.41
• As Chief Justice Jefferson has pointed out: “Some counties share a multi-county district court, while others have multiple districts within the county. And some counties are part of more than one district, creating a shifting target for litigants who may not know which court’s rules prevail. Overlapping geographical jurisdiction creates confusion for litigants and increases the risk of conflicting rulings in a single area.”42
• At least one county court has no civil jurisdiction whatsoever.43
• Only eight percent of Texas’s justices of the peace are lawyers, even though they can hear cases involving multimillion-dollar claims.44
• A civil suit that would be tried before a twelve-person jury in district court would be tried before a six-person jury if filed in a county court.45
• District court vacancies are filled by appointment by the Governor46 but statutory county court vacancies are filled by appointment by the county commissioners, even though those courts frequently have jurisdiction over the same matters.47
• Whether there is a minimum monetary limit on the State’s district court jurisdiction actually remains an open question.48 While the Constitution has been amended to eliminate a monetary minimum, there is some argument that it is still implied.49
• Generally, jurisdictional limits on statutory county courts range widely by county—from $500 to $100,00050—and some such courts have no monetary limits at all.51
• “Appellate rights can vary depending on which court a case is filed in, even among trial courts with concurrent jurisdiction, and even when the same judge in the same courtroom presides over two distinct courts.”52
The legislature managed to improve upon one of those anomalies - the subject matter jurisdication of statutory county courts - with the passage of HB 79 by Rep. Tryon Lewis and Senator Robert Duncan, in the first called session this summer. Judge Gary Harger worked hard on the bill on behalf of my office and authored a nice summary in this month's Texas Bar Journal.

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