Chapter 10: Laws, Courts and Justice

  Key Terms:

affirm; appellate jurisdiction; bench trial; civil law; criminal law; defendant; judicial activism; jurisdiction; ordinance; original jurisdiction; peace bond; plaintiff; plea bargaining; prosecutor; reverse and remand; reverse and render; statute; trial de novo court of record; trial court; concurrent jurisdiction; appellate jurisdiction; certificate;  concurring opinion;  defendant;  dissenting opinion;  exclusive jurisdiction; jurisdiction;  original jurisdiction;  judicial review;  majority opinion;  plaintiff; redress;  writ of certiorari;


Judiciary is a collective term for courts and judges.  In the U.S. the judiciary is divided into the national and state level.TX has the largest judicial system in the country (3,000 judges; 10 million cases).  In Texas all judges with the exception of some municipal judges are elected.

Statutory Law

It is formulated by the legislature.

Common Law

It is judge-made law that reaches back through centuries of judicial decisions.  The common laws continues to develop according to the rule of star decisi, which means "let the past decision stand".

Constitutional Law

They come from the decisions of the supreme court.

Administrative Law

Body of law created by administrative agencies to implement their powers and duties in the form of rules, regulations, order, and decisions.

Civil Law

It is non-criminal matters; and it concerns private rights and remedies.  The final court remedy is relief from, or compensation for the violation of legal rights.    Civil laws are based in large part on English common law.

Criminal Law

It involves a violation of a penal law.  One of the most important distinctions between civil and criminal cases involves the issue of burden of proof.

civil = preponderance of the evidence

criminal = beyond a reasonable doubt

A criminal case is initiated by a government prosecutor on behalf of the public.
Texas uses a system of graded penalties for non-capital offenses and a 2-step procedure for determining guilt and assessing punishment


capital felonies
1st degree
2nd degree
3rd degree


class A
class B
class C

Capital Felonies

1. Murdering a peace officer or firefighter;
2. Murdering someone in the course of committing or attempting to commit another crime;
3. Committing a murder for pay;
4. Murdering two or more persons (serial murder0 during the same criminal transaction;
5. Murdering a child under six years of age.

Type of cases that a court is competent to hear and decide;

Original Jurisdiction

The power of courts to hear and decide a case for the first time.   A trial involves the determination of fact and the application of law

Appellate Jurisdiction

A case has already been heard by a lower court and one of the parties was dissatisfied with the outcome.  It does not involve a new trial but rather a review of the law as it was applied in the original trial.

Courts interpret and apply state laws.  Some courts have original jurisdiction, some appellate jurisdiction, and some have both.

Municipal Courts

  1. judges appointed or elected
  2. term of office varies
  3. although authorized by state law, they are set up by incorporated cities and towns
  4. exclusive jurisdiction to try violations of city ordinances and state law class C misdemeanors ($500 or less; no jail sentence)
  5. majority of cases deal with traffic violations
  6. referred to as traffic courts

Justice of the Peace Courts

  1. elected by people in precinct to a 4 year term
  2. TX Constitution requires that the county commissioners establish at least 1 and not more than 8 JP precincts in a county
  3. original jurisdiction in civil matters if less than $5,000
  4. jurisdiction over criminal cases if under $500
  5. may issue warrants for arrests
  6. notary
  7. perform marriages
  8. only qualification is to be a registered voter
  9. if not a lawyer, must take a 40 hr. course after election and a 20 hr course each year
  10. may act as coroner


  1. peace officer
  2. principal function involves serving subpoenas and stopping courtroom violence in a district court

Small Claims Court

  1. since 1953, JP takes care of this if $5,000 or less
  2. assistance of a lawyer is not required

County Courts

  1. each of the 254 counties must have one
  2. county judge, who is elected for a 4 yr term, presides
  3. some counties have County Courts-at-law

District Courts

  1. chief trial court of the state
  2. justices elected to 4 year terms
  3. if office vacant, governor can appoint replacement (most judges initially get their jobs this way)
  4. felony cases
  5. civil cases over $500

Appellate Courts

  1. 14 of these in TX
  2. judges elected to 6 year overlapping terms
  3. must be 35 years old and have 10 years experience as a lawyer or judge
  4. hear both civil and criminal appeals that do not involve capital punishment
  5. judges usually set in groups of 3

Court of Criminal Appeals

  1. 9 justices
  2. must be at least 35 years old and have 10 years experience as a judge or lawyer
  3. elected by the people of the state and serve 6 year overlapping terms
  4. hears only criminal appeals
  5. TX’s highest criminal court

Supreme Court

  1. 9 justices
  2. elected by the people of the state and serve 6 year overlapping terms
  3. 35 years of age, citizen of US and TX, 10 years experience as a lawyer or judge
  4. hears only civil cases that come to it from the Courts of Appeal
  1. the state constitution guarantees everyone charged with a felony or misdemeanor the right to a trial by jury
  2. Grand Jury
  3. used for felony indictments
  4. decides if there is enough evidence for a trial (9-12 members)
  5. Trial Jury (petit jury)
  6. decides guilt or innocence
  7. names takes from voter registration lists, drivers license, and ID cards issued by the DPS
  8. 6-12 people on jury
  9. Exempted from jury duty
  10. over 65
  11. legal custody of a child under 18
  12. full time college and secondary students
  13. primary care giver
  14. any other person the court determines a reasonable excuse exists

Civil Trial Procedure

  1. unless disapproved by the legislature, rules of civil procedure for TX courts are made by the State’s Supreme Court
  2. verdicts do not have to be unanimous
  3. appeals go to the Courts of Civil Appeals and then to the TX Supreme Court

Criminal Trial Procedure

  1. rules passed by the state legislature
  2. may waive right to jury trial except in capital felony cases, no matter what the plea
  3. jury verdict must be unanimous, if not hung jury, and judge must declare a mistrial
  4. if mistrial declared, district attorney decides if retry or not
  5. judge has option of disregarding jury’s guilty finding if he/she believes it is a substantial miscarriage of justice and order a new trial
  6. appeals go to the Court of Criminal Appeals
  1. State Commission on Judicial Conduct may discipline justice
  2. Impeachment

Additional Readings

Multiple Choice Questions

Web Links
Chapter 8: Law, Courts, and Justice
An Overview of the Court System in the United States
Texas Judiciary Online
Texas Court of Criminal Appeals
Texas Supreme Court
Texas Department of Criminal Justice
Texas Youth Commission
State Bar of Texas
Texas State Electronic Library
The People's Lawyer
University of Houston Law Center
U.S. Federal Courts Finder