Texas Court of Criminal Appeals

By: Paul M. Lucko

Type: General Entry

Published: August 1, 1995

Updated: May 14, 2019

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is the state's court of last resort for criminal cases. Only Texas and Oklahoma have separate high courts for civil and criminal matters; Oklahoma adopted the system after entering the Union in 1908. To meet a heavy civil caseload, Article V of the Texas Constitution of 1876 removed all criminal jurisdiction from the state Supreme Court by establishing a three-judge Court of Appeals to hear all criminal cases appealed from state courts. The Court of Appeals, whose decisions were not subject to Supreme Court review, also received civil appeals from county trial courts in addition to assuming exclusive criminal appellate jurisdiction. In 1891 Texas voters approved a state constitutional amendment that retained the Supreme Court and established an intermediate Court of Civil Appeals and a separate three-judge Court of Criminal Appeals. James Mann Hurt served as the first presiding judge for the Court of Criminal Appeals when the new judicial system began in September 1892. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals functioned as the state's highest criminal court. Its three judges were elected for six-year terms. To help the court meet its workload, the Texas legislature in 1925 established a two-person Commission of Appeals appointed by the governor. By 1934 the Court of Criminal Appeals had received statutory authority to select the commissioners, whose decisions became final upon approval by the regular judges. Another constitutional amendment in 1966 increased the number of judges to five by making the two commissioners full judges beginning in 1967. The 1966 amendment extended the court's session from nine months to twelve months a year and allowed state voters, instead of the judges, to select the presiding judge in future years. John F. Onion, Jr., the first presiding judge, was chosen by the voters in 1970 and assumed office in 1971. The legislature reestablished the Commission of Appeals in 1969 to assist the court in meeting an expanding workload. A 1977 constitutional amendment enlarged the court to nine members, effective in 1978, and empowered the court to sit in panels of three judges in noncapital cases. For capital cases the amendment required the nine judges to meet as a whole. Upon discretion of the judges, the entire court could hear other cases as well. An important constitutional amendment in 1980 relieved the workload of what had become probably the busiest appeals court in the nation by extending intermediate criminal appellate jurisdiction to the courts of civil appeals in 1981 and renaming them courts of appeals. The Court of Criminal Appeals, however, continued to receive capital appeals directly from district trial courts and could accept cases from the courts of appeals. The Court of Criminal Appeals also retained its authority to hear petitions for the writ of habeas corpus by convicted persons claiming that they were entitled to release or a reduction of incarceration time. Beginning in 1986 the court received authority from the legislature to establish evidentiary rules for criminal trials and to proclaim the appellate rules for criminal procedure.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has periodically attracted criticism from the press, attorneys, government officials, and legal scholars. Most negative commentaries have focused upon the court's alleged inclination to reverse convictions for technical or procedural matters unrelated to a defendant's guilt or innocence. Critics have complained about the inefficient nature of a dual appellate court structure, which presents the potential for conflicting rulings from the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court. Other observers have maintained that judges who specialize in either civil or criminal law fail to develop the broad perspective that generalist judges possess. Defenders of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals have countered the critics by explaining that the court has affirmed far more trial court convictions during its history than it has reversed. Court supporters have suggested that "technicalities" actually consist of constitutional and statutory guarantees that protect the rights of all citizens. Advocates of specialization have argued that heavy caseloads prevent modern judges from attaining expertise in both criminal and civil law. Many lawyers have also contended that the separate criminal appeals tribunal expedited the processing of large numbers of criminal cases during the period when no intermediate criminal appellate court existed. Most students of the court have also found that the Court of Criminal Appeals and the Texas Supreme Court have usually maintained a harmonious working relationship that has prevented serious disputes arising from conflicting opinions. Judicial reformers have frequently proposed a merger of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals with the Texas Supreme Court. A comprehensive attempt to restructure the Texas court system occurred during the 1970s through an effort to revise the Texas Constitution. An advisory Texas Constitutional Revision Commission advocated a complete rewriting of Article V that would have given a single supreme court final appellate jurisdiction over criminal and civil matters. The rejection of the proposed constitution by the Constitutional Convention of 1974 and by Texas voters in 1975 terminated the last major effort to abolish the Court of Criminal Appeals. Prosecuting and defense attorneys have perhaps expressed the most interest in the election of criminal appeals judges. Often the court has divided into prosecution and defense factions, with particular judges displaying tendencies to vote in favor of either the state or the defense in cases reviewed by the tribunal. One of the court's most famous decisions occurred in 1966 when the judges voted unanimously to reverse the conviction of Jack Ruby, who had slain Lee Harvey Oswald, the accused assassin of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy (see KENNEDY ASSASSINATION). The Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that law-enforcement officers had secured an illegal confession from Ruby and that the trial judge should have granted Ruby's request to move the trial from Dallas. In another famous case, the Court of Criminal Appeals in 1988 reversed Gregory Lee Johnson's conviction for burning an American flag at the Republican national convention in Dallas in 1984. The United States Supreme Court upheld the lower court's decision in 1989. Well-known judges who have served on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals include Offa Shivers Lattimore, William Arthur Morrison, Frank Lee Hawkins, Wright C. Morrow, William F. Ramsey, Lloyd W. Davidson, Harry N. Graves, Kenneth Keith Woodley, Truman Roberts, Leon Douglas, and Sam Houston Clinton.

George D. Braden, ed., The Constitution of the State of Texas: An Annotated and Comparative Analysis (2 vols., Austin: Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, 1977). Paul Burka, "Trial by Technicality," Texas Monthly, April 1982. Keith Carter, "The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals," Texas Law Review 11 (December 1932, February, April, June 1933). O. S. Lattimore, "The Origin, History and Operation of Courts of Criminal Appeals," in Bar Association of Dallas, The Dallas Bar Speaks, 1936 (Dallas: Mathis, Van Nort, 1937). William L. Willis, "The Evolution of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals," Texas Bar Journal, September 1966.

  • Law, Law Enforcement, and Outlaws
  • Politics and Government
  • Courts and Judiciary

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Paul M. Lucko, “Texas Court of Criminal Appeals,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 19, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/texas-court-of-criminal-appeals.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

August 1, 1995
May 14, 2019