TEXAS JUSTICE COURTS: AN OVERVIEW
I. History of the Justice of the Peace.
The Constitution provides for Justice of the Peace Courts in each Texas county. The office of the justice of the peace, one of the oldest of English institutions, was one of the first instrumentalities of government created in America by the British colonists to maintain order by the exercise of criminal jurisdiction.
Today, in accordance with Constitutional provisions, the number of precincts in a county is determined by the county’s commissioners court. The 254 Counties in Texas elect over 800 Justices of the Peace in the State. In Harris County, there are eight (8) Justice of the Peace Precincts, with two (2) Justices of the Peace in each Precinct, Each justice of the peace serves a four year term.
The main duties of the justice of the peace are to preside over the justice court and to act as coroner in those counties in which there is not a medical examiner; the justice of the peace is best known for conducting marriage ceremonies.
Interpretive Commentary, Art. 5, §18, Texas Constitution.
A justice of the peace in Texas must be a citizen of the United States, and among other qualifications, at least 18 years of age, and a resident of Texas and the precinct in which the justice will serve. A Justice of the Peace need not be a lawyer to hold the office.
§141.001, Texas Election Code.
II. General Civil Jurisdiction of the Justice Courts.
The Constitution establishes the civil jurisdiction of the justice courts, and permits additional jurisdiction and duties to be added and created by the Legislature. In 1876, the justice courts had jurisdiction of civil matters of all cases where the amount in controversy was $200 or less, exclusive of interest. Today, the justice courts have original jurisdiction of:
• Civil matters in which the amount in controversy is not more than $10,000, exclusive of interest; (9-1-85 $1,000; 6-20-87 $2,500; 9-1-91 $5,000; 9-1-2007 $10,000;)
• Cases of forcible entry and detainer, or eviction cases;
• Foreclosure of mortgages and enforcement of liens on personal property in cases in which the amount in controversy is otherwise within the justice court’s jurisdiction;
• Suits relating to enforcement of a deed restriction of a residential subdivision that does not concern a structural change to a dwelling, regardless of the amount in controversy.
§ 27.031 and § 27.034, Texas Government Code.
Justices of the peace may exercise jurisdiction over other matters as allowed by law.
§ 27.033, Texas Government Code.
Justices of the peace have a vast array of administrative duties, for example, dangerous dog determinations, determinations of the rights of owner and operators of towed or booted vehicles, driver’s license and handgun revocations, and the allowance of an occupational driver’s license.
Civil cases in Justice Courts are governed by Part V of the Rules of Civil Procedure. These Rules define case types filed in the Justice Courts:
1. Small Claims Case: A lawsuit brought for the recovery of money damages or specific personal property, or other relief allowed by law. The claim can be for no more than $10,000, excluding statutory interest and court costs, but including attorney’s fees.
2. Debt Claims Case: (defined by nature of plaintiff) A lawsuit brought by an assignee of a claim, a debt collector or collection agency, a financial institution, or a person or entity primarily engaged in the business of lending money at interest, to recover a debt.
3. Repair and Remedy Case: a lawsuit filed by a residential tenant to enforce a landlord’s duty to repair or remedy a condition of rental premises that materially affects the physical health or safety of an ordinary tenant.
4. Eviction Case: (formerly referred to as forcible entry and forcible detainer) a lawsuit brought to recover possession of real property. Eviction cases are brought under Chapter 24 of the Texas Property Code, and are usually brought by landlords against tenants to recover possession of premises because of failure timely to pay rent.
The Justice of the Peace in Texas also presides over the Truancy Court, conducting proceedings in cases where a child has been absent from school without excuse for ten or more days or parts of days in a six month period in the same school year.
III. General Criminal Jurisdiction.
The Constitution also establishes the criminal jurisdiction of the Justice Courts. The Justice Court has criminal jurisdiction in criminal matters of misdemeanors punishable by only a fine, or punishable by a fine and as authorized by statute, a sanction not consisting of confinement or imprisonment that is rehabilitative or remedial in nature.
Art. 4.11, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
Offenses most commonly handled by the Justice Court include:
• Traffic, driver’s license offenses, and failure to maintain financial responsibility;
• Public Intoxication
• Disorderly Conduct
• Simple Assault
• Theft of property valued at under $100
• Parent Contributing to Nonattendance.
A criminal proceeding in Justice Court is commenced either by the filing of a citation or by the filing of a complaint and is governed by the provisions of Chapter 45 in the Code of Criminal Procedure. These rules are intended:
• to provide fair notice to a person appearing before a justice court and a meaningful opportunity for that person to be heard;
• to insure appropriate dignity in court procedure without undue formality;
• to promote adherence to rules with sufficient flexibility to serve the ends of justice; and
• to process cases without unnecessary expense or delay.
Art. 45.001, Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
Appeals from cases determined in the justice courts are to the County Courts or County Courts at Law. Appeals are conducted de novo.
Justices of the peace in Texas are governed by the Canons of Judicial Ethics promulgated by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Over 600,000 cases per year are filed in Harris County’s sixteen Justice Courts. The caseload is unevenly distributed among the Precincts due to precinct boundaries, facility constraints, and population in the precincts. Court staffing is based on the number and nature of the cases filed in each precinct. Justices of the Peace in Harris county have the ability to hear cases for each other, to transfer cases among the Harris County Justice Courts, and to direct the filing of cases to specific courts.