By Lisa Soto
While judicial races may not necessarily be at the forefront of our minds during election time, it is critical not to leave them behind.
In our most vulnerable times, when faced with a dispute that lands in court, the judicial system becomes relevant to us on a personal level. It is then we have a keen interest in having the right judges on the bench. They are the gatekeepers of justice — the ones to guide the legal process, ensure we are heard, and preserve the system’s integrity.
When selecting judicial candidates during election time, we might consider looking at candidates’ proven abilities to listen carefully; be accessible, approachable, patient, and respectful; be deliberate, diligent, and attentive to detail; follow through on all matters carefully; manage staff well in a manner that productively moves the court forward; write well; have strong legal acumen; and afford every matter the due time and attention it needs to make thoughtful, lawful decisions.
With the exception of certain appointed associate judges, in Texas voters choose the judges who preside in the courts, at all levels, during the election process. It is important to understand the court structure and what each type of judge does in order to take a close look at the candidates and determine who you would want on the bench if you found yourself in court or if a court were making a decision that impacts you.
The roles of different courts
Generally speaking, there are two types of courts: trial and appellate courts. The trial courts try cases, which means that they receive evidence in the form of testimony and documents and issue a verdict — some with a jury, some without.
The appellate courts (the intermediate and high courts) do not try cases; instead, they receive appeals from parties that are dissatisfied with the decisions at the trial-court level. They review the record of the trial courts below along with the parties’ legal arguments to determine whether the lower courts made a mistake in terms of questions of law or procedure.
Texas has four different designations of trial courts: justice of the peace courts, municipal courts, county courts, and district courts. The justice of the peace courts and the municipal courts sit below the county courts and are not “courts of record.” This means the justice of the peace and municipal court decisions, when appealed, are reviewed de novo or all over again with a trial in the county courts.
Matters from both the county courts and the district courts, whether final decisions on the merits or “interlocutory appeals” — appeals on final matters short of a decision on the merits — are appealed to a Court of Appeals.
Texas has approximately 800 justice of the peace courts. These courts hear what are commonly referred to as small-claims matters as well as civil matters in which the dispute does not exceed $20,000. They also hear certain criminal misdemeanors that involve punishment by limited fines only and not by jail time. Finally, justice of the peace courts engage in certain magistrate functions and can preside over weddings.
Texas also has approximately 947 municipal courts. These courts hear matters involving alleged criminal violations of municipal ordinances and other limited criminal misdemeanors that carry punishment by fines but not by jail time. Municipal courts also have certain magistrate functions and jurisdiction over limited civil matters.
Justice of the peace and municipal court decisions may be appealed to the County Courts, which are still trial courts in this capacity because the cases appealed to the county courts go through a new trial.
Texas has more than 500 county courts with original jurisdiction in civil matters involving damages up to a certain amount, misdemeanor criminal matters, and juvenile matters. El Paso houses county courts at law that are specifically designated to hear civil matters, to hear family matters, and to hear both civil and criminal matters. There are also certain county courts designated exclusively as probate courts to handle matters involving disposition of property after death as well as guardianship and mental health matters.
Throughout Texas, about 500 district courts have original jurisdiction over felony criminal matters, civil matters involving unlimited damages over $200, juvenile matters, land title matters, divorces, and contested elections. Similar to the county court system, El Paso houses district courts that are specifically designated to hear civil matters, to hear family matters, and to hear both civil and criminal matters.
Texas appellate courts
The Texas Court of Appeals sits below the high courts and above all the trial courts. The Court of Appeals is divided into 14 districts and includes 80 judges, or “justices” as they are called at the appellate court level.
The Court of Appeals covering 17 counties in the West Texas region is the 8th District and is seated in El Paso. The 8th District Court of Appeals has three justices and is the only court in El Paso that requires a collaborative approach to issue opinions, as at least two out of the three justices must agree on a decision before it may be issued.
The fact that the Texas high courts only review a small fraction of the decisions appealed makes the Court of Appeals, in effect, the court of last resort for an overwhelming majority of civil and criminal cases.
In addition to appeals from the district courts and county courts, the Court of Appeals has original jurisdiction over certain writs of mandamus, injunction, prohibition, and habeas corpus. Unlike the trial courts, which interface directly with parties in lawsuits during trial and hearings, the Court of Appeals’ primary focus is intensive research and writing. Attorneys make very limited appearances only to argue the law before the justice panel in cases where they are called to do so by the court.
The highest appellate courts consist of the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.
The Texas Supreme Court handles overall court administrative duties, petitions for review, civil and juvenile-related appeals, certain petitions for writs, parental notification appeals, and questions of state law from federal courts, that at least four justices agree to consider.
The Court of Criminal Appeals handles direct appeals from the trial courts on death penalty cases, along with criminal appeals from all courts below and overall court administrative duties.
The high courts spend much of their time reviewing appeal requests to determine whether to accept them and ultimately accept a small percentage of cases. The two high courts are seated in Austin and generally speaking have the final say in matters of state law.
All judges wield great power and authority in the community and we, the voters, decide who will occupy these important positions. When faced with a legal dilemma, community members and their attorneys should feel reassured that they will be fully and fairly heard, respected, understood, and have their disputes decided upon lawfully no matter how simple or complex the legal and factual issues may be.
Lisa Soto is an El Paso attorney and a candidate for the 8th District Court of Appeals in the March 1 Democratic primary.
Cover illustration courtesy of http://www.weisspaarz.com/