FEDERAL JUDICIARY. Texas is one of only two states (the other being New York) to be divided into four judicial districts, the North, South, East and West, for purposes of federal trial-level courts. Appeals from decisions of these courts are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, headquartered in New Orleans, with jurisdiction over federal courts in Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi. Federal courts in Texas, as elsewhere, are courts of limited jurisdiction. Before the Civil War, the bulk of the docket was comprised of "diversity" cases, that is, cases involving citizens from two different states or lawsuits between an American citizen and a foreign national. During the Reconstruction period, partly due to fear that Southern state courts would not vigorously enforce federal law, federal courts in Texas, and elsewhere also, were given authority to decide "federal questions," that is, lawsuits arising under or hinging on a determination of federal law. At all times, however, Texas state courts have continued to hear a substantial number of federal issues, except for situations in which the United States Constitution or a statute grants exclusive jurisdiction to federal courts-such as copyright, admiralty, and bankruptcy matters. It should be noted that Texas is unique among the states in that, as a functioning independent sovereign during the period of the Republic of Texas, Texas courts handled such exclusively "federal" matters as admiralty cases. In the late twentieth century, a marked legislative trend developed toward increasing the orientation of federal courts toward questions of federal law, and decreasing the availability of federal courts as fora for matters of state law in which the only claim to federal jurisdiction was diverse citizenship. A common reason given for this trend is that, as American society becomes more mobile, there is less fear that an out-of-state defendant will be "home-towned" by a state judge and jury.
When Texas was annexed to the United States in 1846, the entire state constituted one federal judicial district. John C. Watrous was appointed the first United States District Judge for Texas. His tenure was marred by strident complaints of partiality arising from his involvement in land speculation, including four separate impeachment attempts. In 1857, keeping pace with the state's rapid expansion in population, the state was divided into two judicial districts. Judge Watrous continued as judge of the Eastern District and Thomas Howard Duval was appointed judge of the Western District. When Texas seceded, judges Watrous and Duvall were the only Southern district judges to opt for the Union. In consequence, William Pinckney Hill and Thomas J. Devine were appointed by the Confederate government as judges of the Confederate Eastern and Western District Courts, respectively. Virtually no business was conducted by the courts, however, except that which related to the conduct of hostilities and the sequestration of "alien" property. After the war Watrous and Duvall returned to their former positions and to an enormous backlog of legal business. In 1879 the Northern District was established from counties carved out of the two older districts; Andrew P. McCormick was appointed judge. In 1902 the Southern District similarly was established; Waller T. Burns was the first judge.
Geographically, the Northern District of Texas includes such population centers as Dallas, Fort Worth, Abilene, San Angelo, Amarillo, Wichita Falls, and Lubbock; the Southern includes Houston, Galveston, Laredo, Brownsville, Victoria, and Corpus Christi; the Eastern includes Tyler, Beaumont, Sherman, and Texarkana; and the Western includes Waco, Austin, San Antonio, El Paso, Del Rio, and Pecos. The growth and relative workload of federal courts in Texas reflects changes in business development and population patterns of the state as a whole. In 1949 the Northern District had three judges, the Southern and Western Districts had two, and the Eastern District still had only one. By contrast, 1995 figures reflect the explosion of federal litigation during the latter half of the twentieth century, as well as the movement of population to newer districts. The Southern District led the state with sixteen active district judges, the Northern District had eleven, the Western District ten, and the Eastern District-the successor to the original District of Texas-had only five active judges. The Southern District is particularly notable, over the long term, for its heavy workload. In 1931 it had the largest single-judge federal caseload in the nation; in 1961 it ranked in the top ten on workload; and in 1990 it ranked among the four busiest. While the four federal district courts are the most visible signs of a federal judicial presence in Texas, the state also is home to other members of the federal judiciary. Since passage of the Bankruptcy Act of 1867, federal bankruptcy judges have decided cases in this major area of federal law. The heavy workload in federal courts also led in 1968 to the formation of positions for federal magistrates, now "magistrate judges," who assist the federal district judges in the performance of their duties. Unlike federal district and appellate judges, neither bankruptcy judges nor magistrate judges enjoy life tenure.
Charles L. Zelden, Justice Lies in the District: The U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, 1902–1960 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1993).