Understanding The Texas Legal System
Local Trial Courts
The State of Texas divides up its courts into several different levels of jurisdiction and authority. At the lowest level are the Justice of the Peace (J.P.) courts. These courts are designed to handle both small claims (Under $5,000) and Class C Misdemeanors, and are generally friendly to non-lawyers. No long, drawn-out legal documents need to be filed, and the parties can generally state their positions orally in front of the J.P., and most people represent themselves without the presence of a lawyer.
At the local trial level, there are also Municipal Courts, which handle traffic violations and fine-only criminal offenses. Municipal courts are divided into “No-Record” and “Record” courts, both being user-friendly and are mostly handled without a lawyer.
Appeals of a decision by a Justice of the Peace or Municipal Court of No Record are handled by the County Court of Appeals for a completely new trial, or a trial de novo. Appeals resulting from the decision of a Municipal Court of Record are handles by the County Court based on imperfections in the record of the original trial rather than a completely new trial.
County Courts are where all misdemeanor criminal cases are handled. this includes cases like assault, small thefts, possession of marijuana, and of course DWI.
Most County Courts or County Courts of Law in Texas are limited in their scope of damages that they can award to an individual, regardless of the amount that the jury hands down. However, in several large cities, such as Houston and Dallas, the County Court Systems have unlimited jurisdiction and can hear a case of any size.
District Courts are the true backbone of the state judicial system. They were originally created to handle only the really big cases, and thus they can handle cases of any size, shape or form. District Courts handle cases based on their district within the State of Texas, and they handle felony criminal cases, family law cases, divorces, child support, and many types of civil cases.
In many counties the District Judge handles the entire spectrum of cases; but in the larger and more populous counties (like Harris County) the District Courts are broken down according to their specialty.
Once a case had been handles in either a County or District Court, it can be appealed to one of the 14 Appellate Courts within the State, depending on where the case originated.
If an appeal is denied by the Appellate Courts, than one can have a final appeal to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal cases or the Texas Supreme Court for civil cases. However, just like the United States Supreme Court, these two bodies actually hear a small portion of the cases that are sent to them. Therefore, if they refuse to hear your particular case, your case is considered closed at that point.