Texas Court Records
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This entry was originally written by Wendy Bebout Elliott, Ph.D. FUGA for Red Book: American State, County, and Town Sources.
Court names and jurisdictions in Texas changed over time. The history of Texas court records with dates and jurisdictions is more thoroughly outlined in the Kennedy and Kennedy, Genealogical Records in Texas (see Background Sources for Texas). Although English common law is the basis for the court system in Texas, modifications are allowed as dictated by the situation. These were usually changes based upon Spanish law, which proved beneficial to settlers.
From 1836 through 1891 the highest court—the state’s supreme court—heard only appellate cases and functioned as a circuit court, holding hearings in Austin, Galveston, and Tyler for three-month sessions, annually. State supreme court records from 1838 to 1940, including litigants’ records in appellate civil and criminal cases, are housed in the Archives Division of the Texas State Library.
In 1891 the court of criminal appeals was established to hear criminal cases, thereby reducing the caseload of the state supreme court to hear only appeals of civil disputes. The Supreme Court Record Group, held in the Archives Division of the Texas State Library, contains approximately 4,500 cases. Unfortunately, a large number of files for 1840–53 are lost. Records available include case files, dockets, minute books, and opinions. Published opinions are available for all years except 1844–45. It is best to check the published records available at the archives division covering the periods 1840–44 and 1846–1963 with a direct (plaintiff) and reverse (defendant) card index to the case file numbers for the period 1836 to 1893. For phone or correspondence requests, the archives’ staff will check the card index and case file if the case file number is referenced in the card index or can be furnished. Some original records are too fragile to be copied.
The county commissioners court conducts the daily business for each county, among other duties, setting tax rates and county budgets for such categories as schools, roads, and the poor. The county clerk serves as recorder and clerk to the commissioners court and the county court. A large number of records about the daily lives of county residents are kept, as a result, by the county clerk. In counties with less than 8,000 population, one recorder/clerk may serve both county and district courts.
County courts operated from 1836 but were abolished, temporarily, in 1869. Their jurisdiction was transferred to district courts until 1876 when county courts were reinstated. The Chief Justice of each County, being the local supreme civil authority, was responsible to provide rulings/decisions on all manner of cases up to the end of the Civil War. After the Civil War, County courts were restricted by the Federally imposed State Government to hear and rule on most misdemeanor, civil, probate, and guardianship cases, all recorded by the county clerk, along with other instruments such as cattle brands, deeds, and marriage licenses. Naturalization records are found, prior to 1906, in county court records (see Special Focus Categories—Naturalizations).
District courts, one for each county, are the principal trial courts in Texas and serve as the court of appeal in probate matters (from county court) and for the commissioners court. District courts have original jurisdiction for felonies, divorce, land title, name changes, and after 1931, for adoptions. In the 1890s separate divorce minutes appeared. After 1906 the district court continued to handle naturalization matters (see Special Focus Categories—Naturalizations).
Justice of the peace courts, often called “poor man’s court,” were established in 1845. They handle civil and criminal matters under $200 and issue warrants and writs. In towns of 2,500 or less, these courts act as registrar of vital statistics.
As a result of the destruction of records in the adjutant general’s office when it burned in 1855, a court of claims was established from 1856 to 1861 to hear cases against the republic and state for claims of money or land. Approximately two-thirds of the applicants’ cases were denied. The old and new “dockets” list applications. Court-approved records relating to nearly 4,500 headright certificates, over 2,000 bounty warrants, more than 650 donation certificates, almost 500 scrip certificates, and rejected claims are deposited in the GLO (see Texas Land Records). Access to county court addresses can be found at Texas Law Organizations Resource Center website www.txlaw.org/clerks.html.