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A Brief History of the Texas Courts and Why Texans See So Many Judges on their Ballots

At election time, I am time and time again surprised at the number of judicial races Texas voters decide. While direct election of judges by popular vote in Texas is nothing new, what happened to create so many courts and so many judges in the state? Here is a brief history of how these many courts and judges came to be, and links to the original sources.

1836: In the 1836 Constitution of the Republic of Texas, allowed for the creation of three district courts, and allowed for up to eight. District judges also served as associate judges of the supreme court.

1845: As Texas joined the United States, the 1845 Constitution of Texas held that the governor would appoint judges to the district and supreme courts. An amendment made during the 1845 constitutional convention to allow for direct election of judges failed to pass.

1850: Following a joint resolution proposing a constitutional amendment to allow for popular vote, 75% of Texas voters approved the amendment and direct election of judges for the Texas supreme and district courts begins.

1876: The 1876 Constitution of the State of Texas creates the Texas Court of Appeals to hear all criminal appeals and civil appeals arising from the county courts.

1891:  Article V of the Texas Constitution amended to create the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals to hear all criminal appeals, and renaming the Texas Court of Appeals to the Texas Court of Civil Appeals to reflect its new jurisdiction. These efforts to reduce the Supreme Court’s backlog did not achieve the desired result as new civil courts created more litigation, more appeals, and more requests from writs of error from the Supreme Court.

1945:  A constitutional amendment expands the Texas Supreme Court’s membership from three to nine.

1977: The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals’ membership rose from three to nine.

1980: The Texas Courts of Civil Appeals were renamed the Texas Courts of Appeals and given jurisdiction over initial appeals in all criminal cases other than capital cases. This change is due in part to the U.S. Supreme Court’s criminal procedure revolution in the 1960s and 1970s that resulted in more legal issues for courts to consider in criminal cases.

1992: A Republican majority is elected to the Texas Supreme Court for the first time in its history. This has remained unchanged, after the 2016 election both the Texas Supreme Court and Texas Court of Criminal Appeals will have all Republican membership.


For more on the history of Texas Courts, check out the excellent book by Michael Ariens, Lone Star Law, which provided some of the references used in this post.  

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