Texas Courts and Subject Matter Jurisdiction
Subject-matter jurisdiction concerns a court’s power to hear a case. Without it, a court does not have authority to decide a case. Subject matter jurisdiction is distinct from the concept of personal jurisdiction, which involves a court’s power to bind a particular party.
The Texas Court System
The basic structure of the Texas court system was first established by a state constitutional amendment in 1891. The amendment established the Texas Supreme Court (the highest state appellate court for civil matters), and the Court of Criminal Appeals (which makes the final determination in criminal matters). There are 14 intermediate courts of appeals, which exercise intermediate appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal cases.
The state district courts are the state’s trial courts of general jurisdiction, and there there are more than 400 throughout the state.
In addition to these state courts, the Texas Constitution provides for a county court in each county, and the Legislature additional courts with statutorily prescribed jurisdiction.
The jurisdiction of the various courts is established by the Texas constitution and/or by statute.
Subject Matter Jurisdiction is a Question of Law
Whether a trial court has subject matter jurisdiction is a question of law. Subject matter jurisdiction is never presumed and cannot be waived or conferred by agreement. And the absence of subject matter jurisdiction can generally be raised at any time and can be raised by a court sua sponte.
In reviewing a challenge to the court’s subject matter jurisdiction, the trial court can review the pleadings and any other evidence relevant to the subject matter jurisdiction issue.
Personal Jurisdiction, Distinguished
In contrast, personal jurisdiction involves a court’s power to bind a particular party. Unlike subject matter jurisdiction, personal jurisdiction can be voluntarily waived by an appearance in court.
The parties can, by agreement, consent to personal jurisdiction and venue in a given court. But the subject matter jurisdiction of a court cannot be enlarged by an agreement between the parties or a request that the court exceed its powers. It cannot be conferred by consent, waiver, or estoppel at any stage of a proceeding.
Standing is a component of subject matter jurisdiction. It is implicit in the concept of subject matter jurisdiction. The general test for standing in Texas requires that there (i) be a real controversy between the parties, that (ii) will be actually determined by the judicial declaration sought.
Standing is a constitutional prerequisite to maintaining a suit under both federal and Texas law. The standing requirement stems from two limitations on subject matter jurisdiction: the separation-of-powers doctrine and, in Texas, the open courts provision. Under the Texas Constitution, standing is implicit in the open courts provision, which contemplates access to the courts only for those litigants suffering an injury. Specifically, the open courts provision provides:
All courts shall be open, and every person for an injury done him, in his lands, goods, person or reputation, shall have remedy by due course of law.
TEX. CONST. art. I, § 13 (emphasis added).
A plaintiff’s standing to assert a claim is a component of a trial court’s subject matter jurisdiction, and subject matter jurisdiction is essential to a court’s authority to decide a case. Standing must exist at the time a plaintiff files suit and must continue to exist between the parties at every stage of the legal proceedings, including the appeal.
In federal courts, to satisfy Article III standing under the U.S. Constitution—i.e., the limitation on judicial power to resolve only “Cases” and “Controversies”—a plaintiff must suffer an injury in fact that is fairly traceable to the defendant’s conduct and likely to be redressed by a favorable judicial decision. The Texas standing requirements parallel the federal test for Article III standing, demanding a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court. Accordingly, Texas courts often look to federal courts for guidance on the standing doctrine.
The Separation-of-Powers Doctrine, Generally
One limit on a court’s jurisdiction under both the state and federal constitutions is the separation of powers doctrine. See TEX.CONST. art. II, § 1. Under this doctrine, governmental authority vested in one department of government cannot be exercised by another department unless expressly permitted by the constitution.
The Texas Supreme Court has construed the Texas Constitution’s separation-of-powers article to prohibit courts from issuing advisory opinions because advisory opinions are the function of the executive, rather than the judicial, branch. This effectively denies Texas courts subject matter jurisdiction over such opinions.