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Attorney at Law

1002 Rio Grande
Austin, Texas 78701

Phone answered
24 Hours a Day



While it may seems to some that the Texas criminal court system is one large jumble, there is, in fact, method to the madness.  First, the criminal court system is divided into two distinct parts, the trial courts and then the appellate courts.  Both the trial courts and the appellate courts are further divided into several levels.

The Trial Courts

As the name implies, these are the courts that actually try criminal cases.  The lowest level of trial courts are the Municipal Courts and the Justice of the Peace Courts.  These courts have responsibility for trying violations of Class C misdemeanors (those crimes which are punishable by up to a $500 fine and no jail time) as well as municipal and county ordinances.  Examples of Class C misdemeanors are public intoxication, disorderly conduct and harassment.  Examples of municipal ordinances are Austin's lease law and the prohibition against shooting a firearm within the city limits.  In the Municipal Courts, a representative of the City Attorney's Office prosecutes for the State, while in the Justice of the Peace Courts, the County Attorney's Office is responsible for prosecutions.

The next higher level of trial court is the County Courts.  The County Courts have jurisdiction over Class A and Class B misdemeanors.  Class A misdemeanors are punishable by up to one year in the county jail and a fine not to exceed $4,000.  Class B misdemeanors are punishable by up to 6 months in the county jail and a fine not to exceed $2,000.  In Travis County, there are 7 County Courts.  County Courts Numbers 1 and 2 have civil jurisdiction only (that is, they do not hear criminal cases, but rather those cases where one party sues another party for monetary damages).  County Court # 4 (Judge Mike Denton presiding) is known as the family violence court and handles most of the misdemeanor cases involving family violence.  County Court # 3 (Judge David Crain presiding), County Court # 5 (Judge Wilfred Aguilar presiding), County Court # 6 (Judge Jan Breland presiding) and County Court # 7 (Judge Brenda Kennedy Presiding) have general misdemeanor jurisdiction.  In Travis County, the County Attorney's Office prosecutes all misdemeanor cases; the current Travis County Attorney is Ken Oden.

The highest level of trial court is the District Court. The District Courts have jurisdiction over all felony cases.  Felonies are divided into 5 levels. The lowest level is the state jail felony.  The maximum sentence for a state jail felony is 2 years in a state jail facility.  In Travis county, the state jail is a local facility located in eastern Travis county.  The next higher level felony is a 3rd degree felony, a sentence for which can be between 2 and 10 years in the Texas state prison system.  Next is the 2nd degree felony, which is punishable by a sentence of from 2 to 20 years.  A 1st degree felony is punishable by a sentence of 5 years to 99 years.  The last category are capital cases where the death penalty may be imposed.  There are four District Courts in Travis County, the 147th (Judge Wilford Flowers presiding), the 167th (Judge Mike Lynch presiding), the 299th (Judge Jon Wisser presiding) and the 331st (Judge Bob Perkins presiding).  The Texas Lesgislature, during its 1999 session, authorized two more District Courts for Travis County, in order to deal with the tremendous backlog of criminal cases.   Responsibility for prosecution of felonies falls on the District Attorney's Office.  In Travis County, the current District Attorney is Ronnie Earle.

The Appellate Courts

If a criminal case goes to trial, an appeal may be taken which allows a Defendant to argue that mistakes were made during the trial.  No appeal may be taken from a case where the Defendant is acquitted, although in certain circumstances, the State may appeal a judge's pre-trial rulings, but only before the actual trial begins.  However, if a Defendant loses at trial and appeals the case, the State then is free to question certain judicial rulings that the State feels the judge made in error.

The first level of appellate court in Texas is the Texas Court of Appeals.  There are 14 such courts in this state, each one in a specific district.  Travis County cases are appealed to the 3rd District Court of Appeals.  These 14 Courts of Appeals have both civil and criminal jurisdiction, that is, both civil and criminal cases are appealed to them.

If a Defendant feels that the Court of Appeals has made a mistake in the case, under certain circumstances, the Court of Appeals ruling may be appealed to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.  This is the highest criminal appeals court in Texas, and they hear only criminal appeals.  The Court of Criminal Appeals is the equivalent of the Texas Supreme Court, but the Texas Supreme Court hears only appeals of civil cases from the Courts of Appeals.  Appeals from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals go to the United States Supreme Court, although the US Supreme Court is very unlikely to grant such an appeal unless the issue involves interpreting a major federal constitutional issue.  Contrary to images sometimes drawn in the media, it is very rare for a case to be overturned on appeal.

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