The First Civil Courts in Houston

by David A. Furlow

In 1776 John Adams observed that, “[t]he dignity and stability of government in all its branches, the morals of the people, and every blessing of society depend on an upright and skillful administration of justice.” See ROBERT J. TAYLOR, et al. (eds.), THE PAPERS OF JOHN ADAMS (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 1977), vol. I, Chap. 4, Doc. 5, at http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch4s5.html (accessed May 31, 2014).

Since, by general consensus, the proper administration of justice requires a courthouse, tracing the history of law in Houston requires a search for the courthouses where justice was first administered. After the end of Mexican rule and its municipal alcalde system of justice, traditional Anglo-American courthouses came to Harris County. Beginning in 1837, Houston City served the new capital of the Republic of Texas. See Marguerite Johnston, Houston: The Unknown City, 1836-1946 (College Station: Tex. A&M Univ. Press 1991), at 9-11 and 16. Houston’s first courthouses arose soon after the erection of the capitol building on April 1, 1837. Three weeks before the anniversary of the Battle of San Jacinto, where General Samuel Houston won his right to run for, and later serve as, the Republic’s new President. Id. at 16.

Thanks to the foresight and planning of city founders John, Augustus, and Charlotte Allen, as well as the surveying work of Gail Borden, Jr. and his brother Thomas, Houston began with a well-organized street plan and broad avenues. The new roads connected Court House Square with Congress Square, the Church Reserve, and the School Reserve. Id. at 9.

The law of the Republic of Texas that incorporated the City of Houston.

The new republic’s founders gave Texas a two-tiered judicial system. The supreme court consisted of a chief justice and three to eight district court judges who served, ex officio, as associate justices of the supreme court. See James L. Haley, The Texas Supreme Court: A Narrative History (Austin: Univ. of Tex. Press, 2013), at 235; Judge John Hyde, Historical Foundations of The Supreme Court of Texas: People, Politics and Precedent, 7TH ANN. W. TEX. FALL C.L.E. SEM. (Oct. 7, 2005). The supreme court reviewed cases from trial courts. Article IV, Section 1 of the Texas Constitution of 1836 provided the framework for a legal system that continues until the present day. It read as follows:
The judicial powers of the government shall be vested in one Supreme Court, and such inferior courts as Congress, may, from time to time, ordain and establish.
Article IV, Section 2 required Texas’ Congress to divide the republic into districts and to establish a court in each one.

The first civil courthouse in Houston, and Harris County, was a two-story frame building with an outside staircase similar in basic form to the Republic’s two story capitol. Approved by the Harris County Commissioners’ Court in 1838, the first court brought the rule of law.


Don’t believe what you read in the newspaper. The First Court House didn’t look like this.
Digital Image of 2003.003, Harris County Archives,on display at the 1910 Historic Courthouse, Sixth Floor Museum.

The Eleventh Judicial District Court continued, albeit in Harris County’s second courthouse, a brick building crowned with a copper cupola. The Commissioners Court accepted it on October 15, 1851. By 1857 it was too unstable to serve as a courtroom. County officials abandoned it about a year later.


Digital Image of 2003.003.0002, Harris County Archives, on display at the 1910 Historic Courthouse, Sixth Floor Museum. 

The Eleventh Judicial District Court of Harris County, in the Republic’s Second Judicial District, is the oldest trial court in Texas. The first judge of that court, Benjamin C. Franklin, conducted a trial even before the Republic’s constitution went into effect. Thirty-one years old, admitted to the Georgia State Bar at the age of twenty-two, Franklin received a commission to adjudicate an admiralty dispute. That dispute arose on April 3, 1836, when sailors aboard the Texas vessel Invincible seized an American brig Pocket near the mouth of the Rio Grande River. Franklin ruled that the American vessel Pocket was a lawful prize of war. See Haley, Narrative History, at 23. The Republic’s Congress then elected Franklin as a district court judge. Id. From a small acorn grew the mighty oak of Texas jurisprudence.