Fourth Court of Appeals


The Fourth Court of Appeals has undergone many changes over its more than one hundred year history, changes that reflect the dynamic nature of the region and state. Some of the most outstanding jurists in Texas law have served on this Court.

The Early Years

The Texas Legislature created the court in 1893 out of territory taken from the first and third courts of civil appeals. Originally the district encompassed forty-seven counties but with the creation of the thirteenth court of appeals it now covers thirty-two counties. Governor Hogg appointed three justices to the court: Chief Justice John J. James, Justice William Seat Fly, and Justice H. H. Neill. Justice Fly served on the court for forty-one years, nearly half of the court's first century.

The court's initial office supplies cost $682.79, for which the supplier, Clarke & Courts presented a sworn account. It is not clear from the court's records whether the court required filing in that form before it would pay, or whether the merchant decided independently that a sworn account was the appropriate methos of billing the court.

The court first met in the Kampmann Building on Main Plaza. The train carrying the trial court records was several days late, delaying the first court session until September 5, 1893. The court did not publish its first decision, rendered September 13, 1893, in Bolton v. City of San Antonio. Instead, the court issued its first published opinion on September 27, 1893, in Frank v. Tatum, 23 S.W. 311 (Tex. Civ. App.–San Antonio 1893, no writ). The court dismissed the appeal because the trial judge's attempt to finalize the judgment was ineffectual.

The court moved to the Bexar County Courthouse when it was finished in 1896. Part of an Express News article about Bexar County's new courthouse, dated October 4, 1896, stated:

"There is also objection to the arrangement of the rooms for the Court of Civil Appeals on the third floor. The original arrangement was for the judges to be on one side of the courtroom and the clerk 100 feet away on the other side. The judges of the court refused to occupy the rooms assigned them and have taken up their quarters in two rooms intended to be used as jury rooms. These are very nice rooms but are very difficult of access. The clerk has also changed his quarters and occupies the room adjoining the courtroom."

The court obtained more suitable quarters on the fifth floor when the county remodeled and enlarged the courthouse in 1928.

In 1911, the other two justices died, and Justice Fly became the new Chief Justice. Justice Fly was a small man, characterized by his dark, piercing eyes and sharp tongue. In one case, an attorney attempted to hypothesize, "Suppose I sign this promissory note, but a gust of wind comes and blows it out the window." Justice Fly immediately asked him if the note in the case at hand had flown out the window, and the attorney answered in the negative. "Counsel, just stick to the facts of the case," Justice Fly admonished him.

Justice Fly's sharp wit and fierce visage often intimidated the attorneys before him, but he also had a talent for finding just the right word or bit of humor to put young or inexperienced lawyers at ease.

During Justice Fly's tenure, as today, the matters before the court ranged from small domestic disputes to the great social issues of the day. In Ex parte Nolte, 269 S.W. 906 (Tex. Civ. App.–San Antonio 1925, no writ), a mother had obtained a writ of habeas corpus from the trial court to regain possession of her married daughter. Noting the mother admitted her mistake in permitting her minor daughter to go out at night with a man in an automobile, Justice Fly opined that the couple, once married, should be allowed to "live together in peace without interference and intermeddling upon the part of misguided relatives or friends." The judge reversed and dismissed the writ.

In summer vacations, Justice Fly always announced that the court was not "adjourned," but simply "recessed," and that the judges would be available to transact business if any important matters arose. The court met frequently during the summers.

In the summer of 1932, Justice Fly presided over a packed courtroom when the court had to decide whether the law would allow Afro-Americans to vote in the Democratic Primary Elections. It was the only time in the memory of Justice Fly that the court had attracted a large crowd of private citizens. Usually, only lawyers attended.

There was no judicial retirement, so the justices tended to serve until they died. Justice Fly lost much of his eyesight over the years, and had to hire readers at twenty-five cents an hour, an exorbitant expense at that time. Some people said that this expense caused him to decide cases very quickly, but it is doubtful that anyone dared to say this to Justice Fly. Nobody ever opposed him for office, and he served until 1934.

The Court Changes and Grows

Over the years, the court and the region changed and grew, but the court continued to decide matters of great importance to the region and Texas. The court settled a title dispute regarding all of Padre Island within Nueces, Kleberg, Kenedy, Willacy, and Cameron counties in State v. Balli, et al, 173 S.W.2d 522 (Tex. Civ. App.–San Antonio 1940). The courtroom was packed with attorneys. Justice Norvell wrote the opinion, and a former Fourth Court Justice, C.S. Slatton, wrote the Commission of Appeals' opinion affirming it. State v. Balli, 190 S.W.2d 71 (Tex. 1944).

Around 1950, the City of San Antonio was limited to the original 75 square mile charter from the King of Spain. The city fathers were concerned that small, independent cities would form an iron ring around San Antonio, preventing its growth and destroying the tax base. San Antonio annexed eighty square miles, more than doubling its geographical area. According to attorney Harvey Hardy, who represented the city leaders, they overcame a challenge of the annexation in the trial court, but they lost the next election because of the annexation. After the new city leaders took office, the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court's decision in State ex rel Winn v. San Antonio, 259 S.W.2d 248 (Tex. Civ. App.–San Antonio 1953, writ ref'd, n.r.e.). The annexation stood, and the new city leaders' efforts to de-annex the territory failed.

The court has also been a leading source in the development of water law, addressing issues that are still crucial to the region. In Valmont Plantations, Justice Pope wrote the opinion over a vigorous dissent. The Texas Supreme Court granted error, and then adopted Justice Pope's opinion as its own. Valmont Plantations v. State, 346 S.W.2d 853 (Tex. Civ. App.–San Antonio 1961), affirmed, 355 S.W.2d 502 (Tex. 1962). Soon after Valmont Plantations, the court decided the case of State Board of Water Engineers v. Slaughter, 382 S.W.2d 111 (Tex. Civ. App.–San Antonio 1964, error ref'd, n.r.e.), affirmed, 407 S.W.2d 467 (1966). Justice Charles Barrow, who had recently joined the court, drew the case. In Justice Barrow's words, the issue was "Who is entitled to the bucket of water available when there is a barrel of filed permits?" His opinion sparked over twenty-five amicus briefs, but the Texas Supreme Court affirmed. Later, the court addressed riparian rights in Adjudication of Water Rights in Medina River, 645 S.W.2d 596 (1982), rev'd, 670 S.W.2d 250 (1984). In this case, the Court had to decide the ownership of water in the Medio Creek, a non-perennial waterbed. Lackland Air Force Base's waste disposal system utilized the creek, and a ranch owner had dammed up the arroyo to create a lake. Justice Blair Reeves, in a dissenting opinion, traced the riparian rights law to the King of Spain. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the Court's majority opinion, and adopted Justice Reeves' analysis.

As the region has changed, the court has changed as well. In 1981, along with the other Courts of Appeals, the court received criminal jurisdiction, and the number of justices on the court increased from three to seven. At the same time, the court's name changed from "Court of Civil Appeals for the Fourth Supreme Judicial District" to "Fourth Court of Appeals." In 1985 the name changed again to "The Court of Appeals for the Fourth Court of Appeals District." In addition, the court now sits occasionally in constituent counties other than Bexar County, serving an important function by making citizens aware of the court's important role in their lives. While many changes have occurred over the years, one characteristic of the court remains the same: The court remains dedicated to the pursuit of justice and excellence in the law.

Legal Citation:

Texas Constitution, Article V, Section 1
Texas Government Code Annotated, § 22.201