How do Texas judges get their jobs?

Lecture Notes for Module 9

A criminal case is a legal dispute dealing with an alleged violation of a penal law. A criminal

defendant is the party charged with a criminal offense, whereas the prosecutor is the attorney

who tries a criminal case on behalf of the government. The prosecutor and the criminal

defendant are the parties of a criminal case.

Criminal cases may be either misdemeanors or felonies. A misdemeanor is a relatively minor

criminal offense, such as a traffic violation. Texas law classifies misdemeanor offenses as Class

A, B, or C. Class A misdemeanors are the most serious, Class C the least serious. Persons

convicted of misdemeanor offenses can be fined and/or sentenced to no more than a year in jail.

A felony is a serious criminal offense, such as murder, sexual assault, or burglary. Texas law

divides felony offenses into five categories–capital, and first-, second-, third-, and fourth-degree

(state jail) felonies–with fourth-degree being the least serious category of offenses. Persons

convicted of felony offenses can be heavily fined and/or sentenced to long prison terms. The

punishment for capital murder is either the death penalty or life in prison without parole.

Civil Cases

A civil case is a legal dispute concerning a private conflict between two or more parties–

individuals, corporations, or government agencies. In this type of legal dispute, the party

initiating the lawsuit is called the plaintiff; the civil defendant is the responding party. Civil

cases include tort, domestic-relations, probate, property, and contract cases.

 Tort cases involve personal injury or damage to property, such as would occur during a

traffic accident.

 Domestic relations cases concern family law matters, such as divorces or child custody

cases.

 Probate cases involve the disposition of property after an individual’s death.

 Property cases concern the ownership of real property, such as a house or a parcel of

land.

 Contract cases address the terms of a written or oral contract.

Burden of Proof

The burden of proof is the legal obligation of one party in a legal dispute to prove its position to

a court. The prosecutor has the burden of proof in a criminal case. In other words, the prosecutor

must show that the defendant is guilty; the defendant need not demonstrate innocence. Texas

law requires that the government prove the defendant’s guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The burden of proof in civil cases is on the plaintiff, but it is not as heavy as it is in criminal

disputes. The plaintiff is required to prove the case “by a preponderance of the evidence.”

For the plaintiff’s side to win a lawsuit, it need only demonstrate that the weight of evidence in

the case is slightly more in its favor. If a judge or jury believes that the evidence is evenly

balanced between the plaintiff and the defendant, the defendant prevails because the plaintiff has

 

 

the burden of proof. If the judge or jury thinks the evidence tilts slightly in the plaintiff’s favor,

the plaintiff wins.

Resolving Legal Disputes without Trials

In practice, most legal disputes are settled not by trials but through a process of negotiation and

compromise between the parties involved. In civil cases, litigants usually decide that it is

quicker and less costly to settle out of court than to go through the trial process. They agree on a

settlement either before the case goes to trial or during the early stages of the trial.

Similarly, most criminal cases are resolved through a plea bargain, which is a procedure in

which a defendant agrees to plead guilty in order to receive punishment less than the maximum

for an offense. On occasion, defendants may plead guilty to lesser offenses than the crime with

which they were originally charged.

Texas Court System

The Texas court system has three levels:

 Local courts. Municipal courts, justice of the peace (JP) courts, and county courts hear

relatively minor civil cases and misdemeanor criminal disputes.

 District courts. State district courts are the general trial courts of the state, hearing

major civil disputes and trying felony criminal cases.

 Appellate courts. The Texas Courts of Appeals, Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and

Texas Supreme Court constitute the state’s appellate court system.

Local Courts

Municipal courts try Class C misdemeanor cases and violations of city ordinances. They do not

hear civil disputes.

JP courts try Class C misdemeanor criminal cases and hear civil disputes in which the amount

of money at stake is no more than $10,000. They operate as small claims courts in which

litigants do not need lawyers. If you bail your boyfriend or girlfriend out of jail and you don’t

get paid back, you can sue in this court. JP courts also deal with evictions through a process

called forcible entry and detainer.

County courts try Class B and Class A misdemeanor cases and civil disputes generally

involving larger amounts of money.

District Courts

District courts try all felony cases and all major civil disputes. They also decide juvenile cases

and hear divorce proceedings.

Appellate Courts

 

 

Courts of Appeals hear appeals of all civil cases and all criminal cases except for capital murder

cases in which the death penalty was assessed. Those cases are appealed directly to the Texas

Court of Criminal Appeals. The courts of appeal hear cases in panels of three judges.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the highest court in the state for criminal cases.

The Texas Supreme Court is the highest court in the state for civil cases.

The losing party in cases decided by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals or the Texas Supreme

Court may appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court if the U.S. Supreme Court justices agree that a

substantial issue involving the U.S. Constitution or federal law is involved.

Judicial Selection

With the exception of some municipal court judges who are appointed, Texas judges are elected

in a fashion similar to the way the state elects members of the executive and legislative branches

of office. In theory, election makes judges accountable to voters. Critics charge that many

voters are unaware of the qualifications of the numerous candidates for judicial office and base

their voting choices on party affiliation, gender, or perceived ethnicity of the candidates. Critics

warn about the influence of money in judicial races. Candidates for judicial office seek money

from lawyers and litigants who appear before their courts. Critics also contend that the Texas

judiciary is unrepresentative of the state’s diverse population.

Appellate judges serve six-year terms; trial court judges serve four-year terms. JPs and

constitutional county court judges need not be lawyers. Others are required to be attorneys with

years of experience as lawyer or judge.

Some reformers propose that the state adopt the so-called Merit Selection (or Missouri Plan)

system of judicial selection, which originated in the state of Missouri in 1941. Merit Selection

(or the Missouri Plan) is a method for selecting judges that combines gubernatorial

appointment with voter approval in a retention election. Twenty-five states use Merit Selection

to fill a significant number of judgeships. Nonetheless, the election of judges is popular in Texas

and the movement to adopt merit selection has gained little traction. Note: Texas does NOT use

the Merit Selection method of judicial selection.

Texas judges must retire at age 75. The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct is empowered

to investigate judicial wrongdoing and recommend punishments, including, in order of severity,

an admonition, warning, reprimand, and recommendation to the Texas Supreme Court to remove

the offending judge. The Texas legislature can impeach and remove a judge. A judge is also

subject to removal through a process called address from office.

Study Questions

1. What is the difference between criminal and civil cases? 2. Who are the parties in criminal cases? Who are the parties in civil cases? 3. What are the two major types of criminal cases? 4. What are the five major types of civil cases?

 

 

5. Who has the burden of proof in criminal cases? What is the standard of proof? 6. Who has the burden of proof in civil cases? What is the standard of proof? 7. If the judge determines that the evidence is equally balanced, which side wins a civil

case?

8. How are cases settled without going to trial in civil cases? In criminal cases? 9. What are the three layers of courts in Texas? 10. What sorts of cases do municipal courts try? 11. What sorts of cases do justice of the peace (JP) courts try? 12. Which Texas court is a small claims court? 13. What sorts of cases do county courts try? 14. What sorts of cases do district courts try? 15. From what trial courts are cases appealed to the courts of appeal? 16. What is the difference between the procedures of a trial court and an appellate court? 17. What cases are appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals? 18. What cases are appealed to the Texas Supreme Court? 19. Under what circumstances can cases be appealed from one of the state’s two highest

courts to the U.S. Supreme Court?

20. How do Texas judges get their jobs? 21. Why is judicial selection in Texas controversial? 22. What are the proposed alternatives to the current method of judicial selection? 23. When must Texas judges retire? 24. Is there a way for punishing wayward judges or removing them between elections? What

is it?

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