The Boy Scouts occasionally draft me to speak at one of their events. I was an Eagle Scout, so I do so gladly.
At one such recent event, a Scout asked: “Mr. Daniel, can you tell me what the difference is between a justice of a peace court, a county court and a state district court?”
I answered him, but later thought that he isn’t the only one who doesn’t understand the differences between our local courts. In this column, I’d like to explain some key differences between our local courts that hear at least some civil matters.
Harris County’s 16 justice of the peace courts hear a wide variety of civil cases, including conflicts over small claims, evictions and debt collection. (You can learn about the Harris County JP courts at this site: www.jp.hctx.net/suits/about.htm.)
Justices of the peace used to hear small claims cases, meaning that they used to wear two hats, the JP hat and the small claims hat. But state lawmakers last year changed the law and set down that JPs would hear small claims cases as JPs.
The upward monetary limit for a small claims case heard in JP court is $10,000 counting lawyer fees. There is no lower monetary limit on the matter in dispute.
JP court sometimes has a more old-time feel to it. The judge often will question litigants, many of whom are unaccompanied by lawyers.
With the change in JP laws last year, debt collectors may no longer demand that alleged debtors produce documents during the pretrial phase known as discovery. Litigants or their lawyers must petition judges in writing and request that they order the other side to hand over documents.
It generally costs less to file a civil lawsuit in JP court. Filing a lawsuit and having it served on the opposing party will cost $114. Generally, cases are heard quickest in justice of the peace courts and next quickest in county courts-at-law.
Judgments from JP court may be appealed to a county civil-at-law court, and the case would hear de novo – that is, from the start.
JP courts do not handle divorces, defamation lawsuits or ones whose aim is to recover title to land or enforce a lien on land.
Judge Debra Ibarra Mayfield of Harris County Civil Court-at-Law No. 1 explained the differences between a county civil court-at-law and a JP court. A JP court may hear cases involving very small amounts of money, even less than $100, she said. But a county civil court-at-law has a minimum threshold. The amount in dispute must be worth at least $500, but no more than $200,000.
Slander and defamation cases may be heard in county civil courts-at-law, along with lawsuits over property.
Proceedings in county civil courts-at-law are formal. Rules of evidence and discovery apply. Many litigants are represented by lawyers. Judges typically don’t examine or cross-examine litigants.
Eminent domain cases may be filed only in county civil-at-law courts.
Judge Ibarra Mayfield said, “All appeals from the county civil courts-at-law go to either the First Court of Appeals or the Fourteenth Court of Appeals.”
Judge Robert Schaffer, who presides over the 152nd state district court and serves as the administrative judge for local courts, explained the differences between civil state district courts, on the one hand and civil county-at-law and JP courts.
Civil state district courts may hear disputes over matters worth at least $500 on up, Judge Schaffer said. Major cases in which billions of dollars are at stake, such at Texaco v. Pennzoil, may be heard only in state district court.
Judge Schaffer said personal injury cases stemming from car wrecks and breach of contract disputes are the most common types of cases in his court. Medical malpractice cases have declined since state lawmakers passed tort reform.
Divorces in Harris County are heard in state district courts. Ten of Harris County’s 59 state district courts handle only family law cases.
Verdicts from civil state district courts may be appealed to the First and Fourteenth courts of appeals.
Hope this information increases your understanding of the local courts.
Harris County District Clerk Chris Daniel runs jury service and oversees the record keeping and staffing of 76 courts.