Texas SC: Court at Law judge had no jurisdiction in $3.8 M probate case

The SE Texas Record Jan. 21, 2010, 8:26am

Texas Supreme Court

AUSTIN – Judges in county courts at law don't wield great power, and one who thought he did found out he didn't.

On Jan. 15, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that Judge A. Lee Harris of Hill County Court at Law awarded $3,815,000 in a probate dispute where he lacked jurisdiction.

The justices voided the judgment and remanded the case to Harris so he can transfer it to Hill County District Judge Bob McGregor.

At some point McGregor had transferred the case to Harris, though the Supreme Court opinion doesn't explain why.

County courts of law generally preside over smaller cases in bigger counties. The Texas Legislature has created 222 courts of law in 84 counties.

Legislators have assigned different powers to different courts at law, but they have never put a court at law in charge of probate cases.

That didn't stop Harris from holding trial on a claim that Johnny Carroll cheated his mother and brother, Letha and Donald Carroll, out of their father's inheritance.

Harris held the trial with defendant Johnny Carroll nowhere in sight.

Letha and Donald Carroll offered in evidence a statement showing that from 1989 to 2006, the estate's net value had fallen from $1,470,902 to less than $100,000.

Harris removed Johnny as trustee of the estate and awarded Letha and Donald $1,000,000 in actual damages.

Harris awarded $2,800,000 in exemplary damages and $15,000 in attorney's fees.

Johnny moved for a new trial, alleging he didn't receive notice of the trial.

He claimed his mother didn't consent to the trial or the judgment.

Harris held a hearing and found the motion for new trial to be untimely.

Johnny appealed to the 10th District in Waco on various grounds, but did not challenge Harris's jurisdiction.

Judges of the 10th District struck the exemplary damage award but refused to consider evidence or testimony from the hearing on the motion for new trial.

He raised the issue of jurisdiction at the Supreme Court, and he prevailed.

"Jurisdiction over the subject matter of an action may not be conferred or taken away by consent or waiver, and its absence may be raised at any time," the justices wrote in an unsigned opinion.

"Accordingly, Johnny's failure to assert the jurisdictional defect below does not preclude our review," they wrote.

They wrote that Texas Property Code gives district courts original and exclusive jurisdiction over all proceedings that concern trusts, including liability of trustees and their appointment or removal.

They wrote that county courts at law, also known as statutory courts, hold concurrent jurisdiction with district courts in certain workers compensation cases and in civil cases involving less than $100,000.

They wrote that Hill County Court at Law holds concurrent jurisdiction with the district court in felony cases and family law proceedings.

Transfer to the Court at Law was improper, they wrote, because lack of jurisdiction was apparent from the pleadings.

Johnny Carroll represented himself, along with Patrick Barkman.

Bennett Aufill represented Letha Carroll. Clinton Nix represented Letha and Donald Carroll.

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