search archive
Explore the Texas Digital Archive

Texas Supreme Court agency history

Agency History

The Supreme Court was created in 1836 by the Constitution of the Republic of Texas (Article IV, adopted March 17, 1836) with unlimited and conclusive appellate jurisdiction. Congress established the court by an act approved December 15, 1836. This court consisted of the chief justice, elected jointly by both houses of Congress, and the elected judges of the district courts in the state. The Supreme Court had jurisdiction over civil and criminal cases to hear and determine all manner of pleas, complaints, motions, causes, and controversies brought before it by any lower court, but no appeal could be determined until the lower court had made a final judgment or decree, except in particular cases as provided by law. A clerk appointed by the court recorded all the actions of the court and was also charged with preserving the records and transcripts of the court. Following the move to statehood, the First Legislature of the State of Texas organized a Supreme Court (Act of May 12, 1846), to consist of a chief justice and two associate justices appointed to six-year terms by the governor with the consent of the senate.

The terms of the court changed frequently during the 19th century. Initially, the court met annually at the seat of government. Legislation passed on January 22, 1842, established another annual term to be held at Nacogdoches, but an act passed on February 3, 1842, directed the court to hold its annual term at Washington-on-the-Brazos. Further legislation in 1845 (February 3, 1845) directed the court to hold annual terms wherever Congress convened. The Act of May 12, 1846, directed the court to meet annually in Austin. Legislation passed in 1850 (3rd Legislature, Chapter XII, November 30, 1850) amended this act and directed the court to hold three terms a year in Austin, Tyler, and Galveston, with each term lasting about three months. The court continued to meet in this manner until 1892. Following legislation which reorganized the courts system in 1892, the Supreme Court once again met annually in Austin, which it continues to do.

The Supreme Court initially heard appeals from civil and criminal cases. The Court of Appeals was created by the Texas Constitution of 1876, Article V, Section 4, which removed all criminal jurisdiction from the Supreme Court, and transferred civil jurisdiction to the Court of Appeals in some situations. In 1879, to help relieve the backlog of pending civil cases in both of these courts, the 16th Legislature created a commission of arbitration and award known as the Commission of Appeals (Chapter 34, Special Session). Civil cases were referred to this commission with the written consent of the parties or their attorneys. The commission’s opinions, unless overturned by the superior appellate court, became the opinion of record of that court. The commission was composed of three judges appointed by the governor with the consent of the senate. This initial commission ceased to exist in October 1885. In 1887, it was created again (Senate Bill 281, 20th Legislature, Regular Session), still with three judges, to hear cases pending in the Supreme Court. It was increased to six judges in 1891, then discontinued in 1892 upon the reorganization of the courts system with the creation of the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Courts of Civil Appeals. In 1918, due to a multi-year backlog of cases pending before the Supreme Court, another Commission of Appeals was created (Senate Bill 28, 35th Legislature, 4th Called Session). This commission was divided into two sections, A and B, each with three judges appointed as previously. This last commission was discontinued in 1945 and its six judges became justices on the Supreme Court, increasing the number of justices to nine (Senate Joint Resolution 81, 49th Legislature, Regular Session).

A major reorganization of the courts system was undertaken in 1891-1892. A constitutional amendment was passed in 1891, followed by legislation approved April 1892 (22nd Legislature, 1st Called Session). This removed all civil jurisdiction from the Court of Appeals, changing that body to the Court of Criminal Appeals, and created the Courts of Civil Appeals (initially three, eventually fourteen courts). The justices of all of these courts, following the expiration of their current terms, were to be elected by the voters. The mandate of the Supreme Court changed, limiting the appeals which could be sent before it. It now had appellate jurisdiction to questions of law arising in all civil cases for which the courts of civil appeals had appellate but not final jurisdiction. A constitutional amendment in 1940 once again authorized direct appeals from trial courts to the Supreme Court in a limited class of cases.

As of 2017, the Supreme Court consists of a chief justice and eight associate justices, elected to six-year staggered terms. As the highest civil court in the state, it has final appellate jurisdiction in most civil and juvenile cases. Its caseload consists of three broad categories: determining whether to grant review of the final judgment of a court of appeals; disposition of regular causes (granting petitions for review, accepting petitions for writ of mandamus or habeas corpus, certified questions, accepted parental notification appeals, and direct appeals); and disposition of numerous motions related to petitions and regular cases. The court determines which petitions for review will be granted, usually taking only those cases that present the most significant legal issues in Texas in need of clarification.

The Supreme Court also has the authority to conduct proceedings for the removal or involuntary retirement of state judges. The court has many administrative duties as well, including the promulgation of several rules, such as the civil and appellate procedures for the Texas judicial system, and the procedural rules for the Commission on Judicial Conduct; monitoring the caseloads of the fourteen courts of appeals and transferring cases between the courts to equalize their dockets; supervising State Bar operations; and promulgating the rules and regulations for the discipline, supervision, and disbarment of lawyers. The court also has supervisory and administrative control over the judicial branch.

(Sources include: Texas General and Special Laws; A Reference Guide to Texas Law and Legal History, Sources and Documentation, Gruben and Hambleton; Texas Judicial Branch, About Texas Courts website; and the Texas Supreme Court website, both accessed August 10, 2017.)

Click here to return to Texas Supreme Court

Powered by Preservica
Texas State Library and Archives Commission | 1201 Brazos St., Austin TX 78701 | (512) 463-5455 | info@tsl.texas.gov | P.O. Box 12927, Austin TX 78711-2927