The Texas constitution provides that the justice of the peace courts have original jurisdiction in criminal matters of Class C Misdemeanor cases punishable by fine only, and civil matters involving not more than $10,000.
The Justice of the Peace Courts Civil Cases
The Justice Courts in Texas are created under Chapter 27 of the Texas Government Code. Justice courts have jurisdiction of civil matters in which the amount in controversy is not more than $10,000. Justice courts also have jurisdiction of suits relating to enforcement of a deed restriction of a residential subdivision that does not concern a structural change to a dwelling.
- The Justice Court has jurisdiction of Small Claims, Debt Claims, Eviction, and Repair and Remedy cases.
- Justice Courts do NOT have jurisdiction of suits for divorce, suits to recover damages for slander or defamation, suits for title to land, or suits to enforce a lien on land.
- Jurisdiction is the power of the court to entertain an action, consider the merits, and render a valid judgment.
Rules of Procedure and EvidenceThe Texas Rules of Civil Procedure govern procedures in the Justice Courts. All rules governing the district and county courts also govern the Justice Courts insofar as they can be applied, except where otherwise specifically provided by law. Rule 523, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
- The Texas Rules of Evidence govern civil proceedings in the Justice Courts, specifically Rules 500 - 510 of the Texas Rules of Evidence.
- If you are representing yourself in the Justice Court, you will be required to follow the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure and the Texas Rules of Evidence.
Designation of Parties
In legal terms, the party bringing the action is called the "Plaintiff." The one against whom the action is brought is called the "Defendant."
Filing Civil CasesTo begin an action in the Justice Court, it is recommended that the plaintiff file a Justice Court Petition in writing stating the nature of the Cause of Action, and the damages requested.
- In order for the Justice Court to acquire jurisdiction over the defendant, the defendant must be notified of the filing of the lawsuit. When the case has been filed and the filing fee paid, the clerk will issue a citation and deliver the citation as directed by the requesting party. Forms required for service of a citation may be found in the Form Download section.
- The party requesting citation is responsible for obtaining service of a citation. A copy of the petition is attached to the citation. The citation is directed to the defendant and informs the defendant of the filing of the petition, and warns that should the defendant fail to appear at the trial of the claim a judgment by default may be rendered for the relief demanded in the petition. See Rule 534, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
- For citations to be served in a county other than Smith County, please contact the constable or sheriff of that County for the amount of the service fee and location for forwarding the citation.
- The Justice of the peace must collect fees for the filing of a Petition in the Justice Court. Section 118.121, Texas Local government Code Governs the filing fee, and additional fees for basic civil legal services to indigents (Section 51.941, Texas Government Code) and for an alternative dispute resolution system (Section 152.005, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code) are applicable. More information on JP fees and methods of payments.
- Interest rates are charged on any judgments resulting from Civil or Small Claims cases. More information on judgment interest rates.
Service of the Citation
- The citation may be served by any sheriff or constable.
- Citations may be served by personal delivery to the defendant, or by registered or certified mail directed to the defendant, with return receipt requested.
- If attempts to serve the defendant at the defendant's usual place of business or usual place of abode or other place where the defendant can probably be found at proved to be unsuccessful, the plaintiff can ask the Justice of the Peace to allow service in another manner. The request for an alternative method of service must be supported by an affidavit that states where the defendant can usually be found, that attempts to serve the defendant were unsuccessful, and that the manner of service suggested will be effective to give the defendant notice of the lawsuit. The Justice of the Peace can then authorize service of process by leaving a copy of the citation with anyone over 16 years of age at a specified location, or in any other manner that is reasonable effective to give the defendant notice of the lawsuit. See Rule 536, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
Defendant's Responsibilities When Served
- When the defendant has been served with citation, the defendant must file a written answer to the plaintiff's petition by the end of the 14th day after the day the defendant was served with the citation and petition but,
- if the 14th day is a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday, the answer is due on the next day that is not a Saturday, Sunday, or legal holiday; and
- if the 14th day falls on a day during which the court is closed before 5:00 p.m., the answer is due on the court's next business day.
- No judgment may be rendered against a defendant unless the defendant has been properly served with process. Defendants may be natural persons, individuals, or persons doing business in the form of sole proprietorships, or partnerships, or corporations. Any individual doing business under an assumed name, or any business operating in the form of a partnership or corporation, may sue, or be sued in the business name, or service of process must be properly accomplished.
- Service of process directed to individuals is effected by delivery directly to the person. Service of process on business entities is more difficult and must be accomplished by service on an agent or person authorized to accept service.
- For example, if a defendant is a partnership, the citation may be directed to one member of the partnership, and service effected o that one member authorizes a judgment against the partnership and the partner actually served. See Section 17.022, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
- If several partners are jointly indebted under a contractor and the citation has been served on at least one but not all the partners, judgment may be rendered only against the partnership and against the partners who were actually served. No personal judgment or execution may be had against any partner who was not served. See Section 31.003, Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code.
- If defendant is a limited partnership, each general partner and the registered agent of a limited partnership may be served with citation in order to effect service of process. See Section 1.08 of the Texas Limited Partnership Act, Art. 6132a-1, Texas Civil Statures.
- If the defendant is a corporation, citation may be served by serving the corporation's president or any vice-president, or the corporation's registered agent. If the corporation's registered agent cannot be found at the corporation's registered office, then service of process may be made on the Secretary of State. See Art. 2.11, Texas Business Corporation Act.
- If the defendant is a limited liability company, the manager, if any, and the registered gent shall be agents upon whom citation may be served. See Art. 2.08 of the Texas Limited Liability Company Act, Art. 1528n, Texas Civil Statutes.
- To determine the exact legal nature of a business entity, the plaintiff may look at the assumed name records maintained by the Smith County Clerk, or contact the corporation Division of the Office of the Secretary of State at 512-463-5555 or the Office of the State Comptroller at 1-800-252-1386.
Venue and Appearance
- "Venue" is the proper Justice of the Peace Precinct in which the Justice Court may exercise its jurisdiction. As a general rule, a suit in Justice Court must be brought in the county and in the Justice of the Peace Precinct in which the defendant resides. If, however, the defendant has contracted to perform an obligation in a certain county, an action may be brought in the county where the obligation was to be performed.
- A defendant may file a motion to transfer venue asking that the case be transferred to a different precinct. This request must state the reason that the case should be transferred to another county or Justice of the Peace Precinct, either because the county or precinct is not proper, or because mandatory venue in another county or precinct is required by a specific statutory provision which must be clearly designated. The motion must also state the legal and factual basis for the transfer and name the county or precinct to which the case should be transferred. See Rule 502.4, Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
- If the Defendant fails to answer by the date stated in Rule 502.5, the Judge must ensure that service was proper, and may hold a hearing for this purpose, if it is determined that service was proper, the Judge must render a default judgment in the following manner:
- Claim based on written document. If the claim is based on a written document signed by the defendant, and a copy of the document has been filed with the court and served on the defendant, along with a sworn statement from the Plaintiff that this is a true and accurate copy of the document and the relief sought is owed, and all payments, offsets or credits due to the Defendant have been accounted for, the Judge must render judgment for the Plaintiff in the requested amount, without any necessity for a hearing. The Plaintiff's attorney may also submit affidavits supporting an award of attorney fees to which the Plaintiff is entitled, if any.
- Other cases. Except as provided in the point above, a Plaintiff who seeks a default judgment against a Defendant must request a hearing and provide evidence of its damages. If the Plaintiff proves its damages, the Judge must render judgment for the Plaintiff in the amount proven. If the Plaintiff is unable to prove its damages, the Judge must render judgment in favor of the Defendant.
Military Status Affidavit
- The Service members Civil Relief Act, 50 U.S.C. App. 501 et seq, passed December 19, 2003, requires the plaintiff in any civil proceeding in which the defendant does not make an appearance to file with the court a Military Service Affidavit stating whether or not the defendant is in military service and showing necessary facts to support the affidavit; or if the plaintiff is unable to determine whether or not the defendant is in military service, stating that the plaintiff is unable to determine whether or not the defendant is in military service.
- A person who makes or uses a military status affidavit, or statement, declaration, verification, or certificate, knowing it to be false, shall be fined as provided in Title 18, United States Code, or imprisoned for not more than one year, or both.
The Justice of the Peace Courts Criminal Cases
Justices of the Peace have original jurisdiction in criminal cases punishable by fine only, or punishable by a fine and a sanction not consisting of confinement or imprisonment. Criminal procedures for cases that are within the criminal jurisdiction of the Smith County Justice Courts are found in Chapter 45 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.The Rules of Evidence governing the trials of criminal actions in the District Courts apply to a criminal proceeding in the Justice Courts. The Smith County District Attorney prosecutes traffic cases filed in the Smith County Justice Courts.
Jurisdiction of the Justice of the Peace Criminal Court
In addition to Class C traffic offenses, the Justice of the Peace Court also handles a variety of criminal Class C misdemeanors. View the sections specific to traffic violations, hot checks, and truancy for more information on those offenses. Some of the more common offenses besides traffic, hot checks, and truancy include disorderly conduct, assault, public intoxication, minor in possession of alcoholic beverage, and shoplifting. In cases involving alcohol violations, an alcohol awareness course is usually required.
Rights of the DefendantsIf you are accused of an offense within the jurisdiction of the Justice Court, you have certain rights.
- You have the right to see the complaint or ticket that has been filed with the court.
- You have the right to a trial by jury, but you may waive the right to a trial by jury and be tried by the court.
- You have the right to hire any attorney of your choice. You are not required to be represented by an attorney. An attorney may make an appearance on your behalf.
- You have the right to remain silent and not to give evidence against yourself.
- The Judge is prohibited, by Law, from discussing your ticket with you unless you have plead guilty or no contest,, or the District Attorney is also present.
- If you choose to go to Court, you are responsible for bringing all papers, pictures, and exhibits with you to the Court hearing. You may also contact the Court for more information on how to subpoena witnesses.