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District Courts

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The district court has exclusive jurisdiction on felony cases, cases involving title to land, and election contest cases. It shares jurisdiction with the county courts, and in some case justice of the peace courts, for civil cases (its lowest limit for hearing a case is a mere $200 in controversy, while JP courts can hear cases up to $10,000). Family law jurisdiction varies depending on the existence of a county court-at-law; in some counties, the district courts share jurisdiction over divorces, child custody and support matters, adoptions and child welfare cases with county courts at law. Also, probate jurisdiction varies depending on the existence of a statutory probate court in the county. In some larger counties, such as Harris County, the district courts are specialized, some hearing family matters, others hearing criminal cases, and a third set hearing non-family civil cases.

In more rural areas, as many as five counties share a district court; urban counties, on the other hand, have multiple district courts, which in some cases specialize in civil, criminal, family law or juvenile matters.

District court judges are required to be licensed attorneys. Due to this, defendants in counties which only have the traditional constitutional county court may ask to have their cases transferred to that county's district court for trial if the district judge consents. However, defendants in counties with the county court at law structure do not have this option, as the county court at law judges are required to have law degrees.

One of the most unique features of Texas trial courts, including district courts, is the tradition of having only one judge per trial court. Instead of adding more departments to existing courts in response to population growth, Texas adds more courts. The result is that a typical Texas urban courthouse is home to many single-judge trial courts, each of which is legally organized as a separate court with its own unique name and number. This contrasts sharply with the prevailing tradition in the federal judiciary and the courts of virtually all U.S. states, in which a trial court can have multiple judges sitting in separate departments and all of which have authority to act in the name of the same trial court. While Texas law provides for certain specific circumstances in which a judge of one trial court can act for an absent judge of another trial court in the same jurisdiction, it is not as flexible as simply treating all trial judges as members of the same court (and in turn occasionally results in another basis for appeal).

This tradition dates back to the hurried enactment of the Constitution of the Republic of Texas in 1836 by the newborn Republic. Section 2 of Article IV provided for "not less than three nor more than eight" judicial districts, and that "a judge" would be appointed for each district. Similar clauses implying one judge per court appeared in all subsequent constitutions. This issue was finally remedied by a constitutional amendment in 1985, but the tradition of one judge per trial court was by then thoroughly entrenched.