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A primer on all the different types of courts

6 May 2011

You pay traffic fines in one court, follow civil trials in another, probate an estate in a different one, then watch criminal sound bites on the evening news in yet another. Confused?

Allow me to clarify. Some courts are created specifically by the United States’ Constitution (Article III Courts), some are empowered via the federal or a state legislature (United States Tax Court), some are created for a specific purpose (Probate or Family Courts), and still others are one-size-fits-all. I am going to use Harris County (Houston, Texas) by way of an example because it’s the jurisdiction with which I am most familiar, but chances are you can Google for the same type of court in your area.

Texas is so large a state, and Houston so populous a city, that we have many different types of courts, including specialty courts, to deal with it all. Many metropolitan areas will be situated similarly–though perhaps the names of the courts are different–while rural areas may have just one or two courts to deal with all types of matters. In the latter case, those folks may have to drive to a more populated area for some types of procedures or to the nearest federal court (more on that in a minute).

We’ll start with federal courts because it’s much less complicated. Ever hear someone say “You wanna make a federal case out of it??” Well, in truth, probably not. What I mean to say is that there just aren’t that many things that fall under federal jurisdiction. The framers of the Constitution, in their seemingly timeless wisdom, listed a few things specifically delegated to the federal government to handle. We call those enumerated powers (ie enumerated in the U.S. Constitution) and include things such as bankruptcy, intellectual property law, maritime law, coining money, and controlling the postal system. You can see an exhaustive list of enumerated powers here. There are other federal powers that are statutory, meaning the power was created by statute (for example, crimes committed across state lines). Regardless, the states generally have the power to regulate more things within their own individual boundaries than does the federal government.

At the federal level, there is a three-tier system: The United States Supreme Court is at the top, then the United States Courts of Appeals, and finally the U.S. District Courts. The latter (ie bottom of the tier) are the federal trial courts. There are 94 of these districts, and Texas is so large a geographical area that it houses four of them – the Northern District Court, the Southern District Court, the Eastern District Court, and — what else? — the Western District Court. Houston is in the Southern District and its federal courthouse is at 515 Rusk in downtown Houston. You can find more information on the federal Southern District Court of Texas, and the bankruptcy courts, here. Try Googling your area to see where your nearest federal court is.

Next up on the federal level is the U.S. Courts of Appeals. They hear appeals from the U.S. District Courts, the U.S. Court of International Trade, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for Veteran’s Claims, to name but a few. There are 13 U.S. Courts of Appeals, 11 of which are numbered geographical areas, plus the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and one for the Federal Circuit. Houston falls within the 5th Circuit, thus our federal appeals court is known as the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, and is housed in New Orleans, Louisiana. Its federal appellate jurisdiction covers Texas, Louisiana, and Missippi. You can see a map of all the federal circuit courts of appeals here. (Interesting historical side note: in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals was temporarily housed in Houston, Texas.) These courts are considered very powerful because they are typically the final arbitrator over federal matters as the U.S. Supreme Court actually agrees to hear so few cases each year, and because the circuit courts cover–that is, provide controlling law–over very large areas of people.

Of course the top tier of the federal court system is the United States Supreme Court. Nine justices, appointed by the President, and confirmed (or not) by the Senate, sit on this court. As this article will focus more on state courts in general, and Houston in particular, you can find more information about the U.S. Supreme Court on their web-site here.

Texas has a court-tier system much like the federal, with one major distinction. Instead of a single court at the top, picture a triangle pointing downward, with two points at the top. The upper left point is the Supreme Court of Texas , which is the “court of last resort” for all civil appeals in Texas; the top right point is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which is the “court of last resort” for all criminal appeals. Don’t let the names fool you. Aside from their jurisdiction, ie civil vs. criminal, they are equal. At the bottom point of our triangle are the Texas Courts of Appeals. There are 14 intermediary Courts of Appeals in Texas. They hear appeals from both criminal and civil, but if a case goes beyond this point, it will either go up the right or up the left on our triangle model, depending on whether the case is civil or criminal. (By the way, all death penalty cases are automatically appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.)

There is an excellent link to further explain the federal court system vs. the Texas court system here.

Back to the 14 State Courts of Appeals – there are actually 2 of them right here in Houston. Currently, they are both housed at the campus of South Texas College of Law on San Jacinto in downtown Houston (though I believe there are plans to move them to the old, historic courthouse that is currently being renovated). What’s really neat is that their oral arguments are open to the public. Call or visit their web-site and find out the times. You can go and sit in the gallery. It’s pretty cool to watch these proceedings. I know, because I interned for Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals under Chief Justice Adele Hedges, who is still currently the Chief Justice, and was able to watch some of these proceedings myself. But you don’t have to be an intern, just show up! And it’s very likely you will find the same type of set-up if you live in a different state.

Oral arguments are held before a panel of three justices (judges on appeals courts, and on supreme courts, are known as justices, not “judges”). They ask questions and then retire to research legal precedent/authority, deliberate, and make their final decisions (known as “opinions”) at some future date. Most of these decisions are later published in books called “reporters,” and become the basis for our “common law,” or judge-made law, but that’s a topic for another article! Stay tuned!

Texas further has literally hundreds of district courts, statutory probate courts (meaning they were created by statute), county courts at law, constitutional county courts, justice courts, and municipal courts.

Harris County, because of its large population, is home to many of these different types of courts. Some small or sparsely populated counties have but a few, or their state district courts might handle everything from criminal to probate. Harris County is also home to several specialty courts which, as the name suggests, specialize in a particular area of law. An example of this are the Family Law Courts. Many of us have personally visited the Harris County Family Law Center at 1115 Congress downtown.

There is also a special Harris County Juvenile Justice Center at 1200 Congress.

The thing that differentiates the different courts is their jurisdiction, or types of case they handle. For example, our state district courts are the state trial courts (keep separate in your mind the state district courts and the federal district courts!), and some are designated for criminal cases only, as in Harris County Criminal District Courts, or they might handle only civil, as in the Harris County Civil District Courts. Harris County is home to two relatively new, state-of-the-art courthouses for state district courts at 201 Caroline (civil courthouse) and 1201 Franklin (criminal), both downtown. You’ll find these courts have names like “the 125th” or “the 269th.” These refer not only to the actual court’s number, but to one of the 449 Texas’ State District Courts. The courthouse on Caroline also houses the Harris County Clerk’s office on the 4th floor, and the Harris County District Clerk’s office.

County Civil Courts at Law, of which there are four and are handled by the Harris County Clerk — not the Harris County District Clerk — have jurisdiction over appeals of civil cases from the justice courts, suits involving title to property, suits to enforce a lien, and suits for defamation, just to name a few. You can find a more exhaustive list here.

Probate Courts, of which Houston also has four, handle, well, probate matters. They also handle guardianships and involuntary commitments. Find out more here.

Houston Municipal Courts, found here, handle city (municipal means city or local town) issues such as parking, speeding, and red light camera tickets.

If your ticket was not filed in the Municipal Court, which it most likely will be, you might find it at the Justice Court. Justice of the Peace Courts also handle some traffic cases, class C misdemeanor criminal cases, and eviction cases, to name but a sampling. Oh, and you can also get married at one!

Phew, I hoped I’ve clarified rather than confuse! You know, oftentimes when we go to court, it’s for an unpleasant matter. I caution you to remember to be respectful, speak clearly (to a judge or magistrate), or not at all (if in gallery), turn off your cell phone (or leave it at home!), and dress appropriately (that means no jeans, shorts, or sandals).

Frequently, you can find helpful tips about each individual court or judge by going to their individual Website (judges often have specific instructions unique to that particular judge or courtroom). I urge you to do your homework — trust me, that will pay off! –and to be prepared. And remember, our justice system may not be perfect, but I still think it’s the best in the world!

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Sami K. Hartsfield, ACP is a freelance writer and paralegal in Houston. She holds a degree in paralegal studies with a 4.0 GPA and a bachelor of science degree in political science, graduating summa cum laude. Sami interned with Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals under Chief Justice Adele Hedges, and completed the University of Houston Law Center’s Summer 2008 Prelaw Institute. She is preparing to enter law school in the fall and holds a national advanced paralegal certification as well as six specialty certifications: Discovery; Trial Practice; Contracts Management; Individual & Entity Medical Liability; and Social Security Disability Law. You can find her on Facebook and e-mail her with questions, comments, or ideas at

Sami Hartsfield


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 Copyright 2011 Sami K. Hartsfield – All Rights Reserved

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