The most common response I get on the campaign trail when I tell folks I am running for the Court of Criminal Appeals is, “Congratulations! … What’s the Court of Criminal Appeals?” The short answer is that it’s the Supreme Court for all criminal cases in Texas. Below, we’ll discuss a little about how cases wind up there, the history of the court, and a unique type of case the court automatically hears.
My court, the 292nd Judicial District Court, is a trial court. There are hundreds of courts like mine all across Texas. Some hear only civil cases (e.g., lawsuits over money, divorce, wills), some hear only criminal (e.g., DWI, robbery, murder), and some hear both. Although many types of proceedings are heard in these types of courts, they are most commonly known as trial courts because they hear jury trials. Potentially all decisions a Judge makes in these trial courts can be appealed by one side or the other to a Court of Appeals.
Our State is divided into 14 appellate districts, numbered 1 through 14 (click here to see the list of counties in each district). These 14 hear the appeals from the trial courts, whether the case is civil or criminal. If one side loses the appeal, they can appeal one final time. If it’s a civil case, they go to the Texas Supreme Court. If it’s a criminal case, they go to the Court of Criminal Appeals. This is why Texas is said to have 2 supreme courts – one for criminal cases, the other for civil.
In addition to cases that make their way through one of the 14 appeals districts, the Court of Criminal Appeals also hears appeals in death penalty cases. Those types of trials are heard in courts like mine, and only jurors can impose the death penalty. If jurors do assess the death penalty, the case is automatically appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals.
Originally created in 1890, the Court had 3 elected Judges. That number increased to 5 in 1966. In 1978, the legislature set the number of judges at 9 where it remains today. 3 of the 9 Judges are elected every two years on a rotating basis so that each individual judge is up for election every 6 years. Every 4 years, the Court of Criminal Appeals election coincides with the presidential election. Such is the case in 2020. The first race on that ballot will be for the President of the United States. A few spots down, you’ll find all of the statewide races, including mine.
If you’d like to know more about the history of the Court of Criminal Appeals, take a read of this excellent book: Taming Texas, How Law and Order Came to the Lone Star State. James L. Haley and Marilyn P. Duncan. You can also read the preface on page 13 and the appendix beginning on page 673 of Volume 31 of The Texas Criminal Reports: Cases Agued and Adjudged in the Court of Criminal Appeals of the State of Texas.