County Focus Series
Years ago, County Progress published a special series of articles to help acclimate new officials to Commissioners Court: County Focus. This set of descriptive writings authored by experts in the field covers the varied offices and departments that make up county government. What are the responsibilities of the Commissioners Court? How about the county treasurer? Who is in charge of emergency management? What job functions are assigned to the county clerk? We’ve got the answers in this comprehensive set of articles.
In our latest readership survey we were asked to publish this series once again. We updated each article as necessary and launched County Focus in March with the County Judge and the County Commissioner. This month we examine the justice of the peace and the county court at law. Our May issue will feature the tax assessor-collector.
Justice of the Peace
The Texas Judicial System has three levels of trial court and two appellate courts. The three level of trial courts are:
- county; and
- justice or municipal
The justice of the peace falls into the justice court. This court has the most uniform court in the state. Each county is required to have a justice of the peace, and generally there is one for each precinct. The precincts are based on population. These precincts can be changed through redistricting by the Commissioners Court. Each justice of the peace serves a four-year term by election or by appointment to fill a vacancy left in a term. Eligibility requirements for the justice of the peace office are:
- a citizen of the United States;
- at least 18 years of age;
- mentally competent;
- no felony convictions; and
- a resident continuously in Texas for 12 months, having presided in the precinct for six months.
A justice of the peace is elected by the qualified voters of the precinct. A newly elected or appointed justice of the peace must attend 80 hours of training during the first year administered by the Texas Justice Court Training Center and funded by a grant awarded from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. These 80 hours of education are separated into three seminars of two 20-hour schools and one 40-hour school. After the first year in office, justices of the peace must attend a 20-hour school every year. The state mandates that 10 of those hours be civil classes. The education covers all areas of the justice of the peace office. After each legislative session, additional training is offered to keep the judges informed of any and all changes affecting their courts.
The justice court has jurisdiction over civil, small claims and eviction suits up to $10,000 exclusive of interest. Duties also may include truancy court, tow hearings, property hearings, animal seizures, cruelty/dangerous animals, issuances of bad checks and occupational licenses.
Because the justice court is not a court of record, any appeal to county court is trial de novo, or a new trial.
The justice of the peace also serves as magistrate and can issue warrants for arrest as well as search warrants after determining there is enough probable cause to do so. Another important function as magistrate is to review applications for emergency mental commitments and emergency protective orders. In counties that do not have a medical examiner or county coroner, a justice of the peace is required to rule on cause and manner of death on unattended deaths and must determine when an autopsy is necessary to find the cause. In this position, the justice of the peace works closely with law enforcement personnel who have the investigation authority.
Because of the duties of search warrants, arrest warrants, emergency mental commitments and determining cause and manner of death, it is necessary that the justice of the peace be on call. In most counties, there is an agreed rotation in place; in many counties, the County Judge and the city judge help in this area.
For the average citizen, the only court they will encounter is this lower court, or the “people’s court.” The justice court was dubbed the people’s court because people can represent themselves without the aid of an attorney, if they so choose.
Justices of the peace perform a variety of duties, according to the needs of their counties. Many people form their trust in the judiciary at this level. Because of this level of trust, all judges are held to high ethical standards. These standards are governed by the Judicial Conduct Commission. The committee for the Commission receives complaints and investigates to determine if there is an ethical violation or a violation of the Judicial Canons, and administers accordingly.
– By Celinda (Cindy) Mathews, retired Andrews County Justice of the Peace and a Past President of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association (JPCA). Ellis County Justice of the Peace Jackie Miller, also a Past President of the JPCA, contributed to this article.
STATUTORY COUNTY COURTS AT LAW
Statutory County Courts at Law are created by the Texas Legislature to address a local need; they initially were created to handle the judicial functions of the County Judge.
The first statutory county court at law was created in 1907 in Dallas County. The Legislature has continued to establish these courts on an ad hoc basis in response to a county’s request and need.
These courts have general, civil, criminal or specialized jurisdiction and vary significantly from county to county. An individual county court’s jurisdiction is defined by the particular statute creating the court.
The judge of a county court at law must be a licensed attorney practicing in Texas for at least four years. Judges are elected countywide for a four-year term. If they are appointed to fill a vacancy, they are appointed by the County Commissioners Court.
The powers and duties are set out in the Government Code, specifically Chapter 25. The judge can issue writs of injunction, mandamus, attachment, garnishment, sequestration, and habeas corpus in cases where the offense charged is within the jurisdiction of the court. The judge also can punish for contempt, and has all other powers and duties of the County Judge.
Some statutory courts are criminal, civil, probate, family, family violence and juvenile, some hear only appeals, and some do a little of everything. The court has jurisdiction of appeals of the Texas Workers’ Compensation Commission and probate jurisdiction, unless there is a statutory probate court. The court does not have jurisdiction over matters concerning roads, bridges, and public highways or over the general administration of county business; the judge cannot hear cases affecting title to land. The original jurisdiction of trial courts is determined by the subject matter and the amount in controversy at the time of the filing of the suit.
The jurisdictional dollar limit of county courts varies from county to county. It is not related to population. Some county courts at law have jurisdiction in civil cases where the dollar limit is $100,000. Other jurisdictional dollar limits range from $250,000 to $1 million. Still other counties have county courts that have no dollar limit and can handle any case that district courts handle.
In some counties, the county courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the district courts in family law matters including divorces, child custody, adoptions, child welfare, child support, etc. Some county courts have limited family jurisdiction. Other types of civil matters heard in the county courts are condemnation that may involve millions of dollars, personal injury, contract, landlord tenants, debt collections, medical malpractice, justice of the peace and small claim appeals, and administrative license revocation appeals (license is suspended for DWI or DUI).
The county courts also have criminal jurisdiction of Class A and B misdemeanors and appellate jurisdiction over class C offenses and justice of the peace and municipal court decisions. Some county courts have limited felony jurisdiction and can conduct felony arraignments, pretrial hearings, and accept guilty pleas, and some handle all felony matters except capital murder cases.
In 1985 the Court Administration Act, Section 74.094 authorized that within a county, district and statutory county court judges may exchange benches. This means a statutory court judge can sit as a district court judge and vice versa. How does it work in the real world? For example, if my cases resolve, I call the administrator and ask for a district court case. I sit as a district court judge on that case. Section 74.094 gives me, the judge assigned, the same power of the district court that I am sitting for. This statute blurs the practical distinctions between district and statutory county courts and allows for the efficient use of judges.
County courts are important to the Commissioners Court because:
- many citizens interact with this trial court level either as a juror or a party;
- the Commissioners Court fills vacancies;
- the income generated from these courts in fines and costs is significant;
- a significant percentage of the total monies spent on attorney appointments for indigent defense is in misdemeanor cases, i.e. 40 percent in Travis County; and
- Commissioners Court determines the need to go to the Legislature to create a new county court or to change the jurisdiction as a solution to the heavy caseload.
The statutory county courts at law play a very significant role in our trial courts. They are not second citizens to the district courts. These courts are the answer to a local need for additional courts to handle the heavy caseloads.
– By Judge Orlinda Naranjo, former Judge of Travis County Court at Law No. 2, current 419th District Court Judge. El Paso County Court at Law 6 Judge M. Sue Kurita contributed to this article.