The county judge is the most visible official in county government. Often thought of as the county’s chief executive officer, a county judge has broad judicial and administrative powers, including serving as the presiding officer of the county’s policy-making body, the commissioners court. Referred to as “chief justice” by early Texas constitutions, the current office of county judge was established by the Texas Constitution of 1876.
County judges are elected on a countywide basis. Originally, the term of office for this position was two years but in 1954 the Texas Constitution was amended to increase the term of office to four years. Article V, Sections 15-18 of the Texas Constitution contains the legal basis for the office of county judge as we know it today:
“There shall be established in each county in this state a County Court, which shall be a court of record; and there shall be elected in each county, by the qualified voters, a county judge, who shall be well informed in the law of the state; shall be a conservator of the peace; and shall hold office for four years, and until his successor shall be elected and qualified...”
Although they must be well informed in the law, there is no requirement for county judges to have a formal legal education or a license to practice law. After election, however, a county judge is required to attain thirty hours of judicial education during their first year in office and sixteen hours every year thereafter in order to remain up to date regarding new laws and procedures related to their judicial responsibilities.
In many small counties, the county judge presides over the constitutional county court. While responsibilities vary from county to county, a judge may consider criminal, civil, probate, juvenile and mental competency matters. In larger counties, county courts-at-law have been created with separate judges to handle the large amount of work these cases generate. Also, in those counties in which the judge has judicial responsibilities, the judge has appellate jurisdiction over matters arising from the justice courts.