Although county courts were originally established by the Texas Constitution of 1836, their jurisdiction was not clearly defined until the enactment of the Constitution of 1866. After the reconstruction period following the Civil War, the jurisdiction of county courts was expanded until it approximated its present limits. Today there are two basic kinds of county courts in Texas.
The Texas Constitution requires that each county have a county court. A county court that is mandated by the Constitution is called a constitutional county court. Additional county courts have been established by special enactments of the Texas Legislature and are called either statutory county courts of county courts at law. These courts have been established to ease the burden of constitutional county courts in heavily populated areas.
County courts are primarily trial courts but also have limited appellate jurisdiction. These court and the district courts are the forums for trials of the more serious civil and criminal cases within the Texas judicial system.
County courts have jurisdiction over all misdemeanors that are not within the exclusive original jurisdiction of either the justice of the peace or the municipal courts. A class A misdemeanor is an offense for which the maximum punishment is confinement in the county jail for a period not to exceed one year or a fine of no more than $3,000 or both. Examples include public lewdness, certain assaults, theft of up to $200 and burglary of a coin-operated machine. A person convicted of a Class B misdemeanor can be confined in the county jail for up to 180 days or fined an amount not to exceed $1,500 or both. Some examples are theft of more than $5, but less than $20, certain types of criminal mischief, and making a false report to the peace officer.
Unless the constitutional county court is specifically granted criminal jurisdiction by statute, the court may lose its criminal jurisdiction where there is a criminal district court in the same county. In the metro area of the state, therefore, the criminal jurisdiction is often transferred from the constitutional county courts to a statuary county court.
The Texas Speedy Trial Act requires that a defendant be brought to trial quickly. This statute requires a person accused of a Class A misdemeanor be brought to trial within 90 days of the commencement of a criminal action. The prosecution must bring a person accused of a Class B misdemeanor to trial within 60 days of the commencement of the criminal action. Failure of the prosecution to bring the case to trial within these time periods could result in the dismissal of the charges.