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Researching Texas Law: Court Documents

Introduction

What are court rules?

All courts have the authority to make their own rules governing how cases are handled in that court. These rules are called "local rules" and cover court procedures, document filing, and other administrative or procedural matters. These rules are in addition to any state or federal procedural rules and they cannot abolish or supersede a state or federal rule.

While state and federal rules apply to all courts within that jurisdiction, local rules are only applicable in the court that created them - if you appear before a different court, it will have its own local rules that you need to follow, which may be very different from the rules of other local courts.

Attorneys and litigants must follow all applicable federal, state and local court rules when filing or appearing in a court. Not doing so is unprofessional at best and grounds for sanctions, malpractice claims, or contempt of court charges at worst. This means it's vital to know the rules that govern all of the courts in which you're appearing. Fortunately, these rules are usually easy to find.

Types of Court Rules

If it's a court, it's probably got its own rules in addition to the general procedural rules. Below is a list of the most significant types of court rules you may encounter.

Rules Based on Jurisdiction:

  • Federal Court Rules- i.e., the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or the Federal Rules of Evidence. These rules are written and published by the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • State Court Rules - i.e., the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. These rules are written and published by the Texas Supreme Court.
  • Local Court Rules - i.e., the Local Rules for the Family Courts of Tarrant County. In Texas, these rules are written and published by the local courts and approved by the Texas Supreme Court.
  • Administrative Hearing Rules - i.e., the Texas State Office of Administrative Hearings' rules governing cases heard before administrative law judges. These rules are equivalent to court rules and are written and published either by the Office of Administrative Hearings or, if a specific agency handles its own administrative hearings, by the agency itself.

Rules Based on Court Level:

  • Federal
    • District Court Rules - rules applying to the Fifth Circuit district courts.
    • Appellate Court Rules - rules applying to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
    • Supreme Court Rules - rules applying to the U.S. Supreme Court.
  • State
    • Local/County/District Court Rules - rules applying to Texas county and municipal courts.
    • Appellate Court Rules - rules applying to the Texas Appellate Courts.
    • Supreme Court Rules - rules applying to the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

Rules Based on Subject Matter:

  • Civil Procedural Rules, federal and state - rules applying to the conduct of civil cases.
  • Criminal Procedural Rules, federal and state - rules applying to the conduct of criminal cases.
  • Rules of Evidence, federal and state - rules applying to the admission of evidence in court.
  • Specialty/Limited Jurisdiction Court Rules, federal and state - rules applying to the conduct of cases in specialized courts, such as bankruptcy or tax courts.

When practicing before a court, you must be sure you know the appropriate rules for the jurisdiction, the court level, and the subject matter of the case. This seems like a lot, but most of the time you'll only need to look at one or two sets of rules - for example, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure cover all civil cases heard in any federal courts, so if you're trying a civil case in a Fifth Circuit district court, this one set of rules will cover the jurisdiction and subject matter areas and you'll only need to look up the local court's rules.

Finding Court Rules

Print resources:

Most rules are available in both annotated and non-annotated print versions. If you are looking for case law, there are special reporters called the Federal Rules Decisions and the Federal Rules Service that collect cases interpreting court rules.

  • Vernon's Texas Rules: These are the official published versions of the Texas state rules. They are extensively annotated and are supplemented annually and in regular advance sheets.
  • Thomson Reuters publishes a set of standalone federal, state and local rules for each state. These are unannotated and new editions are published annually. These books are very useful for practitioners who often appear before a specific court and need a quick reference guide to that court's rules.
  • Since the text of the rules is public information and may not be copyrighted, many other publishers have taken the basic text and created their own treatises and single-volume compilations with their own annotations and analysis. A popular Texas example is O'Connor's Texas Rules.

Free online resources:

  • Court websites are by far the best way to find local rules. The rules published on court sites are usually unannotated and the available formats, searchability, and ease of use vary across courts. Be sure to check when the rules were last updated to make sure you're using the most current information. To find a federal court's website, use this site. To find a state court's site, try this list.

Fee-based resources:

  • Westlaw and Lexis both offer access to all federal and state and at least some local court rules. These rules are annotated & up to date, but can be quite difficult to navigate and search. Westlaw or Lexis passwords are required to access these services.