Walk into most county courthouses across the state and you can register your truck, obtain a marriage license, or watch district court trial proceedings. You may also find a Texan visiting a probation officer, getting connected with veterans’ services or renewing a driver’s license.
County government operates as the functional arm of state government, and historic county courthouses are the primary venue in which Texans receive many of these services. Across much of the state, Texans have visited courthouses to receive these essential services for generations.
Here’s a look at many of the state services counties deliver to 27.5 million local residents.
Public Safety and Justice
Counties enforce state laws, operate the statewide court system, and run the county jail, which often holds mostly state prisoners.
“Counties also represent the state in the prosecution of both misdemeanors (such as speeding tickets) and felonies — crimes such as possession of drugs, aggravated assault, and robberies,” said Susan Redford, Judicial Program Manager at the Texas Association of Counties and former Ector County Judge.
Counties are involved at every level of public safety and justice. For example, a county sheriff enforces state traffic laws by issuing a speeding ticket. The driver disputes the ticket, then appears in the justice of the peace court, held in the county courthouse. The county prosecutes the misdemeanor on behalf of the state.
Depending on the county’s population and the nature of the charge, the county prosecutor could be a county attorney, a district attorney, a criminal district attorney, or a county and district attorney.
Counties provide virtually all the facilities to house the 1,800 courts in the state system, including 13 of 14 regional courts of appeal and the 467 district courts. These courts and their staff can often be found in county courthouses, particularly in rural counties.
Counties provide most of the funding to run state district courts, constitutional county courts, county courts at law, and justice of the peace courts. According to the Texas Office of Court Administration, counties also provide supplemental pay for the salaries of judges in the courts of appeal and district courts serving their areas. The cost to a county in setting up and maintaining a district court can quickly cascade.
“As an example, just to create one district court in Ector County cost the county $500,000 for the first year. After that, it cost $215,000 a year to run it. And counties can run multiple district courts,” Redford said. “We supplement the salary of the district judge, pay for the court administrator, the court clerk, court reporter and bailiff, and provide the courtroom, offices, computers, office supplies, telephones, and more.”
Vital Records Keeping, Registrations and Elections
Hundreds of historic courthouses across the state serve as archives, safely storing vital records about citizens, property ownership and court proceedings. In some counties, these records date back generations, representing a cache of history and heritage for both the county and state.
Officials and staff working in these buildings not only preserve these treasured and essential documents, but also manage elections and provide residents with state vehicle licensing and registration services.
The clerk’s office records and archives everything from birth certificates, marriage licenses, adoption, and name-change records to bonds, divorce records, wills, and death certificates. Clerks are also responsible for safekeeping records of property ownership, from land deeds and mineral rights to livestock brands. State agencies and the courts rely on this service and the data collected through it. Texans depend on these records to conduct business throughout their lives.
District clerks serve as the records custodians for district courts. They collect court filing fees, and handle funds held in litigation and money awarded by the courts to minors. They also handle the jury panel selection process.
County tax-assessor collectors license and register Texans’ cars, trucks, boats, and horse and utility trailers for the state. Counties must confirm vehicles have passed state safety inspections and that owners do not owe child support.
Counties play a central role in our democracy. They register voters, run elections, maintain more than 5,200 voting precincts, and report election results data to the secretary of state for each and every race, from local school board and city council races to state and national contests for governor and president.
Wait, There’s More
These are just a few of the state services counties provide. Some of the many others include:
- Represent the state in the prosecution of child protective services and welfare fraud cases;
- Remit monies to the state collected from vehicle registration fees, speeding tickets, and court costs;
- House and care for state prisoners prior to transfer to state facilities;
- Pay for the defense of indigent defendants;
- Deliver probation services to juveniles in the court system and adults convicted of a crime;
- Provide the Texas Department of Public Safety with facilities to issue driver licenses; and
- Deliver services to veterans and their families.