Courts and Judges
Our legal system cannot function without competent, fair and honest judges to interpret and apply the laws. With more than 3,300 judges serving on courts across Texas, it is critical that we continue to improve the quality and stability of our judiciary, and ensure that those who are elected to the bench are principled and fair.
To address this need, the Legislature has passed a number of measures over the years:
2023: Creating a Specialized Business Trial Court
Texas’ legal system is specialized from top to bottom, with more than 200 specialty courts handling everything from family and probate issues to veterans’ issues. But despite all of Texas’ focus on economic development, the state lagged in creating a specialized court to handle complex business litigation.
Previously, these cases were filed in Texas’ courts of general jurisdiction, many of which are inundated with other types of cases that take priority over business cases. This can result in long delays for business cases, as they were bumped further and further down the line. Further, many Texas district court judges are generalists, depriving business cases of the benefit of being heard by an expert judge with specific background in commercial litigation. As a result, many Texas companies were choosing to litigate in one of the 30 other states that already have a business court, or opting for closed-door arbitration—neither of which help build a coherent body of business caselaw in Texas.
House Bill 19 creates a specialized business court with 11 divisions that correspond to Texas’ existing 11 administrative judicial regions. The Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Houston courts go into effect Sept. 1, 2024, with two judges each. The remaining six may go into effect if a legislative appropriation is made for them in a future session.
The business court has jurisdiction over three main categories of cases:
- business governance disputes
- commercial disputes
- disputes seeking only equitable relief.
For business governance disputes, the business court has jurisdiction over civil actions with more than $5 million in controversy, unless one of the parties is a publicly traded company, in which case, any dispute is eligible. For commercial disputes, the new court has civil jurisdiction over actions with more than $10 million in controversy. It also has jurisdiction over actions seeking injunctive or declaratory relief, as long as the dispute is within the court’s jurisdiction under the other provisions of the statute. The court has “supplemental jurisdiction” over any related claims that are not otherwise within its jurisdiction but are part of the dispute properly before it—but only if all parties and the judge agree. The court will not hear personal injury cases, Family Code cases, disputes arising under the Texas Insurance Code or criminal cases, among others.
All of the business court judges are appointed by the governor to two-year terms, with Senate approval by a two-thirds vote. In addition to the qualifications required of district judges, every business court appointee must be a licensed Texas attorney with 10 or more years’ experience practicing complex civil business litigation or business transaction law, or have served as judge of a court in this state with civil jurisdiction, or any combination thereof. Judges must also have resided in the division to which they are being appointed for five years.
Having experienced, highly qualified judges serving on this court will ensure complicated business cases are handled fairly, consistently and expediently.
2023: Creating Texas’ Fifteenth Court of Appeals
Texas has seen the value in allowing judges to focus on a specific subject matter, resulting in judicial efficiency and consistent application of the law. We are one of two states with specialized high courts: the Texas Supreme Court for civil cases, and the Court of Criminal Appeals for criminal cases. We have multiple specialized courts at the trial court level, including civil courts for small, medium and large-value cases; misdemeanor and felony criminal courts; family courts, juvenile courts, veterans’ courts, drug courts and others.
In 2023, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 1045, creating the Fifteenth Court of Appeals and giving it jurisdiction of appeals involving constitutional issues, state agencies, state officials or the state itself, and appeals from the new business trial court.
The Fifteenth Court of Appeals’ five justices are elected by all Texas voters because the constitutional and administrative issues that will be heard by the Fifteenth Court are of statewide importance. Due to statutory venue requirements, these cases are currently decided by regional courts, particularly the Third Court of Appeals in Austin. And Texas has not added a new regional appellate court since the 1980s, despite our population more than doubling in that time and the associated increase in strain on our court system. The Fifteenth Court will help ensure these administrative and constitutional cases are handled consistently by one court, and relieve the burden on the other overworked regional courts of appeals.
Further, having both a trial court and appellate court dedicated to resolving complex business disputes will provide a coherent Texas jurisprudence in commercial law and will enhance Texas’ reputation as the best state in the nation to do business.
2019: Addressing the Way Texas Selects its Judges
Texas is one of only a few states that elects its judges. Because there are often so many judges on the ballot and because these are often lower-profile election contests, many Texans simply don’t have enough knowledge about the candidates for judicial office to make informed decisions. Many voters cast their votes for judges based on party affiliation or name recognition, since they have no knowledge of the relative merits of the candidates.
Historically, this has led to groups of long-serving, competent, experienced judges being swept out of office based on nothing other than partisan affiliation. These sweeps create debilitating instability in our legal system, which has serious consequences for the rule of law and confidence in our courts.In 2019, the Legislature passed House Bill 3040, creating the Judicial Selection Commission to study how the state selects its judges. The commission is comprised of 15 members: four appointed by the governor, four appointed by the lieutenant governor, four appointed by the speaker, and one each appointed by the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals and the board of directors of the State Bar of Texas.
2017: Judicial Petition Signatures for Ballot
For many years, judicial candidates in Texas were required to obtain signatures on a petition in order to be listed on the ballot. This helped ensure that those who filed for judicial offices were serious, qualified candidates rather than candidates who simply had a popular name but no experience. The petition requirement, however, was removed by an eleventh-hour amendment to a bill during the 2015 legislative session. Senate Bill 44 was passed by the Texas Legislature in 2017, reinstating the requirement that candidates for judicial office obtain petition signatures to secure a place on the ballot.
2017: Straight-Party Voting
Historically, Texas has allowed one-punch straight-party voting in general elections. Straight-ticket voting, however, has contributed to “sweeps” in some metropolitan counties in which highly qualified judges of both major political parties are swept out of office and replaced by judges who sometimes have no real experience and only the barest of qualifications. Many honest, hard-working Texas judges have been defeated for reelection for reasons that have nothing to do with their qualifications, performance or character. These partisan sweeps create instability in the courts, keep highly qualified attorneys from seeking judicial office and impede the fair and efficient administration of justice. To help address this issue, in 2017 the Texas Legislature passed House Bill 25, which eliminated one-punch straight-ticket voting in Texas.
2017: Court Security
In November 2015, a state district judge was shot outside her home in Austin by a criminal defendant in the judge’s court. The shooting made clear that security for Texas’ judges was inadequate. In 2017, the Legislature passed Senate Bill 42, a court security bill, allowing state and local policymakers to take steps toward providing Texas judges and court personnel with improved security.
1995, 2019: Judicial Campaign Finance Reform
Most Texas judges are elected. (Only municipal court judges are appointed, and they handle only misdemeanor criminal cases.) Of course, electing judges means judicial candidates must run political campaigns that include fundraising. Realistically, the most likely donor to a judicial campaign is an attorney who is familiar with the judge. Consequently, many judicial campaign contributions come from attorneys who have appeared before a given judge.
The majority of Texans are concerned that campaign contributions to judicial candidates by attorneys could affect the outcome of cases. This perception is enhanced by the fact that before 1995, Texas allowed unlimited contributions to judicial candidates.
In 1995, the Texas Legislature passed the Judicial Campaign Fairness Act (Senate Bill 94), which:
- imposes limits on the amount of funds any individual, law firm or political action committee can give to a judicial candidate;
- provides that judicial candidates can choose to comply with limits on the total amount of their campaign expenditures; and
- requires detailed reporting of contributions and expenditures.
Over time, it became clear that the law as written in 1995 was ambiguous in some places, and likely unconstitutional in others. It was confusing to donors who were simply trying to comply with the law. To address this, the Legislature passed House Bill 3233 in 2019, which amends the law to address some of the ambiguities and delete the parts that are unconstitutional, while preserving the protections that ensure judicial campaigns are conducted fairly and ethically.
See also Attorneys