Court of Appeals of Texas, Third District, Austin
THE DISTRICT COURT OF TRAVIS COUNTY, 345TH JUDICIAL DISTRICT
NO. D-1-GN-16-005205, HONORABLE JAN SOIFER, JUDGE PRESIDING
Chief Justice Rose, Justices Pemberton and Goodwin.
Rose, Chief Justice.
Texas Civil Commitment Office (TCCO) filed this appeal from
the district court's amended order denying a plea to the
jurisdiction and motion to transfer venue and transferring to
Travis County the underlying cause involving John H.
Hartshorn's civil commitment under the sexually violent
predator (SVP) statute. See Tex. Health & Safety
Code §§ 841.001-.153. In three issues, the TCCO
contends that the Montgomery County district court that
committed Hartshorn did not lose jurisdiction over his cause
and that the order transferring his cause from the 345th
District Court of Travis County to the 331st District Court
of Travis County is void.
reverse the district court's amended order denying the
plea to the jurisdiction, render judgment granting the plea,
and dismiss Hartshorn's petitions.
1999, the Legislature established a civil-commitment
procedure providing long-term supervision and treatment for
sexually violent predators with behavioral abnormalities that
are not amenable to traditional mental-health treatment and
that increase their likelihood of recidivism. Stevenson
v. State, 499 S.W.3d 842, 844 (Tex. Crim. App. 2016);
see Act of May 30, 1999, 76th Leg., R.S., ch. 1188,
§ 4.01, 1999 Tex. Gen. Laws 4122, 4143-52 (current
version at Tex. Health & Safety Code §§
841.001-.153). The SVP statute in chapter 841 of the Health
& Safety Code is divided into subchapters that generally
provide a chronological framework for the civil-commitment
process, from the initial assessment of whether a person is a
sexually violent predator through trial, civil commitment,
any modifications to the person's housing or supervision
during civil commitment, biennial review of the person's
commitment, and any petitions by the committed person for
release. See Tex. Health & Safety Code
§§ 841.001-.153. The SVP statute allows a person
who has been civilly committed as a sexually violent predator
to file a petition for release, with or without authorization
from the TCCO, which coordinates the committed person's
treatment and supervision. Id. §§ 841.081,
.121-.122. The person may also file a petition for transfer
to less restrictive housing and supervision. Id.
§ 841.0834(b). The issue in this case is whether
amendments to the SVP statute in 2015 stripped the committing
court of jurisdiction over Hartshorn's petition for
release and petition for less restrictive housing and
supervision. We conclude they did not.
2010, Hartshorn was civilly committed as a sexually violent
predator in an order signed by the 435th District Court of
Montgomery County, which was affirmed on appeal. See In
re Commitment of Hartshorn, No. 09-10-00382-CV, 2011
Tex.App. LEXIS 9802, at *5, *10 (Tex. App.-Beaumont Dec. 15,
2011, pet. denied) (mem. op.) (noting that in four-year time
span Hartshorn was convicted of indecency with
thirteen-year-old child, aggravated sexual assault of
eight-year-old child, and sexual assault of twenty-year-old
woman, all involving Hartshorn going into sleeping
person's room and committing sexually violent offense).
The appellate court issued its mandate on July 9, 2012. The
committing court in Montgomery County signed a
biennial-review order continuing Hartshorn's commitment
on June 10, 2015. On September 14, 2015, after the
Legislature's 2015 amendments to the SVP statute became
effective, the committing court signed an amended order
modifying the requirements of Hartshorn's civil
commitment to conform with the new requirements in subsection
841.082(a) of the SVP statute. Both orders gave Hartshorn
notice of his next biennial review.
2016, Hartshorn filed in Travis County his "Unauthorized
Petition for Release and in the alternative, Petition for
Less Restrictive Housing and Supervision, " naming the
TCCO as the defendant. See Tex. Health & Safety
Code §§ 841.0834(b), .122. In this pleading,
Hartshorn alleged that the jurisdiction of the committing
court had terminated June 17, 2015, with the amendment of the
SVP statute and that "the Legislature intended for the
courts of the county where [Hartshorn]'s most recent
conviction for a sexually violent offense occurred to be
the venue for future civil commitment proceedings."
Hartshorn further alleged that because Travis County was the
county of his most recent conviction for a sexually violent
offense, his petition for release and petition for less
restrictive housing and supervision should be filed there.
never perfected service of process on the TCCO. He served
only the Travis County District Attorney's Office. After
the Travis County District Attorney's Office was served,
it requested the assistance of the Special Prosecution Unit.
Under the SVP statute, the special prosecution unit provides
legal, financial, and technical assistance upon request to an
attorney representing the state for a civil-commitment
proceeding. Id. § 841.042. The Special
Prosecution Unit filed a combined motion to transfer venue to
Montgomery County, plea to the jurisdiction, special
exception, and original answer on behalf of the State. The
State contended that the jurisdiction of the committing court
in Montgomery County was not terminated effective June 17,
2015, that under the SVP statute the committing court
retained jurisdiction over Hartshorn's petition for
release, that Hartshorn's alternative petition for less
restrictive housing and supervision should be filed in the
same court statutorily authorized to hear the petition for
release, that venue was mandatory in Montgomery County, and
that the cause should be transferred to the Montgomery County
hearing, the district court signed an order denying the plea
to the jurisdiction and motion to transfer venue and ordering
the cause transferred from the 345th District Court of Travis
County, the court in which Hartshorn's petitions were
filed, to the 331st District Court of Travis County-the court
in which he was most recently convicted of a sexually violent
offense. The State filed a motion to reconsider, which the
court denied in an amended order. The amended order specified
that the committing court of Montgomery County "does not
have jurisdiction over this proceeding" and that
"the 331st District Court of Travis County, Texas has
jurisdiction over this proceeding, as it is the court of
conviction for [Hartshorn]'s most recent sexually violent
offense." The order directed that "this matter is
transferred to the 331st District Court of Travis County,
Texas for all further proceedings." This appeal
first and second issues, the TCCO contends that the
Montgomery County court that civilly committed Hartshorn as a
sexually violent predator retained jurisdiction over his
petition for release under Subchapter G of the SVP statute
and his petition for less restrictive housing and supervision
under Subchapter E of the statute. In its third issue, the
TCCO contends that the order transferring Hartshorn's
cause to the 331st District Court of Travis County from the
345th District Court of Travis County is void.
to the jurisdiction challenges the court's authority to
decide a case. Heckman v. Williamson Cty., 369
S.W.3d 137, 150 (Tex. 2012) (citing Bland Indep. Sch.
Dist. v. Blue, 34 S.W.3d 547, 555 (Tex. 2000)). The
burden is on the plaintiff to affirmatively demonstrate the
trial court's jurisdiction. Id. (citing
Texas Dep't of Parks & Wildlife v. Miranda,
133 S.W.3d 217, 226 (Tex. 2004)). Because subject-matter
jurisdiction is a question of law, we review de novo a trial
court's ruling on a plea to the jurisdiction. Houston
Belt & Terminal Ry. Co. v. City of Houston, 487
S.W.3d 154, 160 (Tex. 2016). In assessing a plea to the
jurisdiction, we begin by considering the plaintiff's
live pleadings and determine whether the facts alleged
affirmatively demonstrate that jurisdiction exists.
Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 150 (citing Miranda,
133 S.W.3d at 226). We may also consider evidence submitted
to negate the existence of jurisdiction, but we need not do
so here because the underlying jurisdictional facts are not
disputed. See id. (citing Bland Indep. Sch.
Dist., 34 S.W.3d at 555). We construe the
plaintiff's pleadings liberally, taking all factual
assertions as true, and look to the plaintiff's intent.
Id. (citing Miranda, 133 S.W.3d at 226). A
plea to the jurisdiction must be granted if the defendant
affirmatively negates the existence of the court's
the jurisdictional issue in this appeal requires us to
construe the SVP statute, which is also an issue of law that
we review de novo. See In re Commitment of Black,
522 S.W.3d 2, 5 (Tex. App.-San Antonio 2017, pet. denied);
In re Lopez, 462 S.W.3d 106, 110 (Tex. App.-Beaumont
2015, pet. denied); see also In re Commitment of
Decker, No. 11-17-00007-CV, 2017 Tex.App. LEXIS 6082, at
*5 (Tex. App.-Eastland June 30, 2017, no pet.) (mem. op.).
Our primary objective when construing statutes is to give
effect to the Legislature's intent, which we seek first
and foremost in the statute's text. Molinet v.
Kimbrell, 356 S.W.3d 407, 411 (Tex. 2011). Undefined
terms in a statute are given their ordinary meaning unless a
different or more precise meaning is apparent from the
term's use in the context of the statute. Greater
Hous. P'ship v. Paxton, 468 S.W.3d 51, 58 (Tex.
2015); Molinet, 356 S.W.3d at 411 (concluding that
plain meaning of text is best expression of legislative
intent, unless different meaning is apparent from context or
if plain meaning would lead to absurd results). Where text is
clear, text is determinative of legislative intent.
Colorado Cty. v. Staff, 510 S.W.3d 435, 444 (Tex.