Municipal Court 101: Small Courts with a Big Impact

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If you shop, work, live or drive through any municipality in Texas, then you need to know about municipal courts.

A municipality is a city or town having a corporate status and limited self-governance rights.  Part of that self-governance is having a court.  Every Texas municipality is entitled to have at least one court. Texas currently has 933 municipal courts.

Every municipal court has a judge.  While the judges do not have to be licensed attorneys, 55% of them are.  Almost 100% of the municipal judges are appointed by the municipality.

The judges can have a whole lot of jurisdiction.  These judges hear all city ordinance violations within their city limits.  Also, they can preside over bench and jury trials, show cause hearings, and hearings on mental health, dangerous dog, code enforcement, stolen property, bond revocation, and some juvenile proceedings.  In addition, hey can issue orders for emergency protection, ignition interlock, and community service.  They can review or issue search, inspection, seizure and arrest warrants.  They preside over jail magistrations, where the defendant is informed of the charge against him or her and given a bond amount.

On a slightly happier note, they can also perform weddings.

How big a business is municipal court?  The figures are staggering.  Over 5 million new cases were filed in municipal courts in 2016.  Municipal courts account for a pretty big chunk of revenue; in 2016 they collected over $680 million in fines and court costs.

Put it all together and here is what you need to know going into a municipal court.

Everyone there in an official capacity is part of one big family:  the city.  The judge is employed by the city.  The complainant, whether a police officer or a code enforcement person, is employed by the city.  The prosecutor is employed by the city.   You are not going to win if you are rude or uncooperative with any of them.  If part of your defense is calling a city employee a liar, then be prepared to prove it; otherwise, your case is going down in flames.

The local rules are important.  These are written rules adopted by the judge and should be available at the court and on the court’s website.  Read them. Follow them.

Show up for your court date.  Judges get mad if you do not show up.

You are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney, even if it is a criminal case.  Sorry.

Do you have to show up with an attorney?  No.  Should you show up with an attorney?  Here’s the decision matrix:  how severe are the consequences to you if you lose?  If you do not know or understand the consequence, consult with an attorney and then decide if you need to retain one.

Finally, do not make the mistake of thinking a municipal court is a kangaroo court or that you will be able to baffle the judge with your brilliance.  These judges can pop you into jail and not lose a bit of sleep over it.

Virginia Hammerle is a licensed Texas attorney.  Her practice includes estate planning, litigation, guardianship, and probate law.  See hammerle.com for her blog and newsletter sign-up.  This column does not constitute legal advice.