Does Texas have “Chancery” courts? If so, what is the Texas Chancery Court and what types of cases does it hear?
Until about the 19th century, the Court of Chancery in England – which is the source of much of American law – was a court of equity (as opposed to being a “court of law”) that had jurisdiction over a limited scope of legal matters and which could grant certain forms equitable relief (e.g., injunctions, etc) that were not available in the courts of law.
“Courts of law” and “courts of equity” have long been consolidated in the American legal system. Thus, in most American jurisdictions, state trial courts have what is known as “subject matter” jurisdiction over all legal matters, except those over which federal courts have been granted exclusive jurisdiction (e.g., bankruptcy, immigration, patents, etc). Likewise, state courts have long been empowered to grant both legal and equitable relief, thus eliminating any need for separate courts of equity.
In Texas, there currently is a bill which is working its way through the state legislature which, if ultimately signed into law, would establish chancery courts within the Texas state court system. The bill – HB 1603 – proposes to establish a Texas Court of Chancery that would have “civil jurisdiction concurrent with district courts” over a wide class of cases which primarily involve the internal governance of business organizations – corporations, limited liability companies, etc. The chancery court would be empowered to “grant any relief available in a district court.”
The proposed legislation would also create a new appellate court, the Texas Court of Chancery Appeals, which would hear appeals from the Texas Court of Chancery.
Under current law, the cases over which the proposed Court of Chancery would have jurisdiction are being handled by the District Courts – the Texas trial courts of general jurisdiction in each county. The cases over which the proposed Court of Chancery Appeals would have jurisdiction are currently being handled by the Texas Court of Appeals.
We reviewed a copy of the proposed legislation here:
The obvious question that is raised by HB 1603 is: Why does Texas need chancery trial and appellate courts to hear and adjudicate cases that are currently being handled by the Texas state district and appellate courts, respectively?
The answer, of course, is that Texas does not need chancery courts.
Texas, unlike all but a very small minority of other states, has two “Supreme” courts, one for all non-criminal cases and another for criminal cases. Although the Texas constitution currently requires this division, almost every other state – and the federal court system – function just fine with one, unified court system. Further, Texas, as the other states with bifurcated supreme courts, is and traditionally has been, under-represented in terms of United States Supreme Court justices. Perhaps this under-representation can be explained, at least in part, by the lack of comprehensive judicial experience that Texas supreme court judges possess.
At the trial court level, Texas has district courts, constitutional county courts, statutory county courts, statutory probate courts, municipal courts, and justice courts. These Texas trial courts, for the most part, are administered and operate independently from one another, even though they have concurrent, or “overlapping” jurisdiction in many instances.
Rather than create a new court system within the current Texas state court system, the legislative and political momentum should be working in exactly the opposite direction: Texas should have one state supreme court that handles all appeals that are currently being handled by the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.
At the trial court level, there should be one, state-wide district court, with each county having one division of the state-wide district court. All other trial-level courts in Texas should be abolished. The one division of the state-wide district court which operates in each county could have multiple sub-divisions, a civil division, a criminal division, a family law division, a probate division, a juvenile division, and so on, but it should be one unified court which is administered, managed and, perhaps most importantly, funded as one unified court.
Funding one unified court would certainly make it easier to monitor and evaluate the functioning and efficiency of the Texas judiciary as a whole. Having one unified court system would also improve the quality of the judiciary in general, as unified court would facilitate and enhance state-wide uniformity in practice and procedure.
If Texas were to reform its court systems by consolidating its two state supreme courts, as well as its multi-faceted and often redundant and duplicative trial courts, Texans would not only save vast amounts of money on the administration of justice, they would simultaneously improve the overall quality of the state judicial system.
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