In Texas, there are four levels of criminal trial courts whose jurisdictions are created by the Texas Constitution and statutes. Generally, District Courts hear felonies, County Courts at Law hear Class A and B misdemeanors and appeals of Class C misdemeanors, Justice of the Peace Courts hear Class C misdemeanors, and Municipal Courts hear Class C misdemeanors.
Felonies include homicide, serious injury and sexual assaults, child and elder abuse, robbery, theft, burglary of a habitation, credit card abuse, certain marijuana and drug offenses, and certain DWI offenses, among other more serious crimes. Felonies are punishable by fines and incarceration in State Jail or the Penitentiary or even death. Probation of the sentence is possible in some cases. Class A and B misdemeanors include Ist and 2nd offense DWI (including boating and flying while intoxicated) and other alcohol related offenses, possession of marijuana and certain other drugs, burglary of a vehicle, evading and resisting arrest, harassment, terroristic threat, deadly conduct, reckless conduct, assault (including domestic violence), cruelty to animals, theft and criminal mischief (property value $50 to less than $1500), prostitution, driving with suspended drivers license, and violation of certain state issued professional licenses (statewide jurisdiction). Class B misdemeanors are punishable by fines of up to $2000 and up to six months in the County Jail. Class A misdemeanors are punishable by fines of up to $4000 and up to one year in the County Jail. Probation of a fine and jail sentence are possible in Class A and B misdemeanors. Class C misdemeanors include most traffic violations, truancy, and certain minor alcohol and intoxication offenses.
Class C misdemeanors are punishable by fines of up to $500.
In Travis County, there are seven District Courts and six County Courts at Law that hear only criminal cases and five Justices of the Peace. District Courts and County Courts at Law have county wide jurisdiction. Justices of the Peace have jurisdiction over criminal cases that occur in their precincts.
The Travis County Courts at Law maintain possibly the highest number of pending criminal cases per court of any county in the State because of our tremendous population growth over the past couple of decades. Therefore, the judges not only manage extremely large dockets, but also work hard to cooperate with the Sheriff and other elements of the criminal justice system to reduce jail overcrowding. The judges have devoted serious and sustained effort, along with the Commissioners Court, to find solutions to current issues in the criminal justice system, such as legal representation for indigent defendants, more effective focus on domestic violence crimes, treatment alternatives for defendants with mental health issues, options for homeless inmates with substance abuse/addiction issues, more effective monitoring and sentencing alternatives for subsequent DWI offenders, and the unique issues of veterans in the criminal justice system.
The individual county court at law judges not only manage budget, personnel, and other administrative matters, but direct the daily operation of their courts. On any given day, the judge might preside over a jury trial or several bench trials or pretrial hearings, take dozens of negotiated or unnegotiated pleas, decide whether a defendant is competent to stand trial, preside over appearances of dozens of inmates in the Jail Reduction Docket, decide consequences for defendants who have violated conditions of probation or conditions of release on bond, review requests for release of defendants on personal bond, review probable cause affidavits in requests for issuance of arrest warrants and search warrants, review applications for issuance of occupational drivers licenses, review attorneys’ requests for removal of bond conditions (especially Ignition Interlock Devices), review requests for issuance of warrants in theft by check matters and bond forfeiture matters and requests to recall warrants in bond forfeiture and other matters, among dozens of other tasks.
As you can see, a criminal county court judge in Travis County has a wide range of responsibilities. He or she must not only know the law, but must possess good judgment, experience, and common sense in dealing with the countless issues and diverse interests of those partners in the criminal justice system: prosecutors and defense attorneys, law enforcement, pretrial services, probation, incarceration, treatment, as well as the interests and resources of those outside the system. He or she must be sensitive to the needs of not only victims, but offenders and their families and the community as a whole. Above all, the judge must see that real justice is done and that those who come to his court, in whatever capacity, are treated with dignity and respect.