What to learn about Paxton-Garza

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The fourth installation of the Chronicle’s election series looks at the roll of the Attorney General in Texas and the race between incumbent Ken Paxton and Democrat Rochelle Garza.

Attorney General

What is an attorney general?

The state’s top lawyer who defends state officials and agencies in court and files suits on behalf of its citizens.

Main responsibilities: The Texas Attorney General’s office primarily handles major litigation, but its duties extend beyond that. The office also enforces the state’s child support laws and ensures those funds are collected, assists local prosecutors in certain types of criminal prosecutions and protects consumers against unfair or fraudulent business practices.

Going further: Attorney General Ken Paxton, who took office in January 2015, has gravitated toward more hyperpartisan, culture war issues over his tenure.

For example: Paxton has led a suit defending Texas’ right to bar large social media companies from blocking users based on their viewpoint, pumped thousands into a human trafficking prosecution unit and issued a legal opinion that spurred the state’s child welfare agency to begin investigating gender-affirming health care for transgender children as abuse.

He also created and continues to expand a voter fraud unit that has failed to uncover the volume of crime that he and other Republicans have claimed goes unchecked.

RELATED: Why Ken Paxton vs. Rochelle Garza for attorney general may be Texas’ most interesting statewide race

Who’s running?

Republicans: Ken Paxton is a former state representative and senator first elected as attorney general in 2015.

priorities: His office has sued to block Biden administration immigration policies, to expand Second Amendment rights and to challenge federal environmental rules. Paxton is also pushing for more authority to investigate claims of voter fraud.

TOMLINSON: Texas AG Paxton’s legal problems undermine rule of law, confidence in courts

Democrat: Rochelle Garza is a former ACLU attorney and new mother who grew up in the border town of Brownsville.

priorities: She has called for creating a civil rights unit within the office, protecting Texans’ reproductive and voting rights and stopping Gov. Greg Abbott’s Operation Lone Star, which calls for state authorities to jail migrants on state trespassing charges.

RELATED: If elected AG, Garza plans to protect workers, LGBTQ+ Texans

Texas Supreme Court

What is the Texas Supreme Court?

The state’s highest civil court, ie the court of last resort for civil matters in Texas. All nine elected members of the court are Republicans.

Recent examples of cases before the court: In May, the court ruled that the governor and attorney general did not have the authority to direct the state’s child welfare agency to investigate gender-affirming care for transgender youth as abuse and only the agency could set in motion such a policy. The agency has decided to continue the investigations anyway.

Over the last yearthe court also upheld the state’s six-week abortion ban in challenges.

RELATED: Texas court upholds ‘judicial bypass’ for minors seeking abortion without parental consent

Who’s running? Three positions on the court are up for election this November. Check out our voter guide for more information on who is running.

Court of Criminal Appeals

What is the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals?

The state’s highest criminal court. All nine judges are Republicans.

Recent examples of cases before the court: In an 8-1 decision last December, the court ruled that the attorney general does not have the authority to prosecute election fraud cases unless asked to assist by the local district attorney or county attorney.

Going deeper: As the highest criminal appeal court in the state, the Court of Criminal Appeals also handles all appeals in death penalty cases.

For example: It was the Court of Criminal Appeals that held Melissa Lucio’s execution in April. In Texas, only the Governor, the district attorney who originally requested the death warrant and the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles also have the power to halt an execution.

Who’s running? Three positions on the court are up for election this November. You can find more information on who is running in our voter guide.

Harris County Courts at Law

What are the courts at law? And why do they exist?

The Texas Constitution only provides for one county court in each of the 254 counties in the state, but one court is not nearly enough to deal with all the issues that arise in counties the size of Harris. To aid the state’s more populous counties, the Texas Legislature created Civil and Criminal Courts at Law.

Civil Court at Law

So how do the civil courts at law work?

Harris County has four civil courts at law and they all do the same thing, namely hear non-criminal matters involving up to $250,000. Think lawsuits over property disagreements and property titles. They also handle eminent domain cases and condemnation lawsuits.

Who’s on the ballot? There are three positions up for election this year — judges for Civil Court at Law No. 1, 2 and 3. Find who’s running here.

Criminal Court at Law

What’s different about the criminal courts at law?

There are 16 criminal courts at law in Harris County, which have jurisdiction over Class A misdemeanors, such as burglary of a vehicle, and Class B misdemeanors, such as criminal mischief and indecent exposure. It also hears cases appealed from justice of the peace and municipal courts.

How many are up for election? Fifteen different criminal courts at law races are on the ballot this November. Learn more here.

Harris County Probate Court

What does it do?

In short, probate courts handle wills and the distribution of the assets of a dead person’s estate. They also preside over lawsuits involving those estates and wills. Probate courts also oversee guardianship cases, trusts and the involuntary commitment of individuals to mental health institutions. Harris County has four probate courts.

Who’s running? Judges for Harris County Probate Courts No. 1-4 are all up for election. Find out who’s running for each here.

Texas Court of Appeals

How does the court of appeals work?

The state has 14 courts of appeal that offer a second chance for criminal and civil verdicts that one side thinks the district court got wrong, unless it is a death penalty case — those go to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Harris County is the home of the 1st Court of Appeals and the 14th Court of Appeals. Each has nine justices and they share jurisdiction over Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington counties.

Who’s on the ballot? There are contests for both the 1st and 14th Court of Appeals. Read about them here.

District Courts

What are district courts?

The district courts are the trial courts for civil matters involving more than $200 and felony criminal cases. They also handle divorces, land disputes and election-related lawsuits. Harris County has 24 civil courts and 24 criminal courts, plus a special court for tax delinquency cases.

Who’s running? Find all the district court races on the ballot here.

Read more from our Texas Elections [Simplified] series explaining key midterm races:

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