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Click here for the full text of this decision FACTS: In 1997, Pinnacle Gas Treating Inc. initiated eight condemnation proceedings in Leon County. Pursuant to Texas Property Code 21.013(d), the district clerk distributed the eight cases among the three courts serving the county: the 12th, 87th, and 278th Judicial District Courts. This case, which involved an easement over the Reads’ property for a gas pipeline, was assigned to Judge Sandel of the 278th court. However, Judge Bournias of the 87th court signed orders appointing special commissioners in all eight proceedings. The commissioners determined that the Reads were entitled to an award of $7,527 for the easement. After Pinnacle filed a notice of deposit, Judge Bournias granted Pinnacle a writ of possession for the easement. Pinnacle then filed an objection to the commissioners’ award and converted the administrative condemnation into a judicial proceeding. Pinnacle filed a motion for partial summary judgment with Judge Sandel to establish that Pinnacle was entitled to condemn the property as a matter of law. The Reads filed a plea to the jurisdiction and a motion to dismiss, arguing that Judge Bournias never had jurisdiction over the case because there had been no proper reassignment of the case or exchange of benches. They also sought damages for wrongful entry and attorneys’ fees. Judge Sandel dismissed Pinnacle’s condemnation proceeding and submitted the Reads’ claim for damages to a jury, which awarded $104,290.57. Meanwhile, Pinnacle initiated a second condemnation proceeding to secure its right to the easement, over which it had already built a pipeline. The trial court rendered judgment on the jury’s verdict, and Pinnacle filed its notice of appeal. A divided court of appeals dismissed the appeal, holding that the second condemnation proceeding rendered the case moot. Pinnacle petitioned the Texas Supreme Court for review, and the supreme court reversed, holding that, because damages were at issue, Pinnacle had a continuing stake in the outcome of the case, and it was therefore not moot. The ocurt remanded that case to the court of appeals for consideration on the merits. The court of appeals again affirmed, holding that Judge Bournias lacked jurisdiction to appoint the commissioners because Judge Sandel never agreed to exchange benches with him. Chief Justice Gray dissented, arguing that any defect was procedural, not jurisdictional. HOLDING: The court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and rendered judgment that the Reads take nothing in their suit against Pinnacle. The record did not reflect whether the second condemnation proceeding had resolved all outstanding issues relating to condemnation damages, or whether a trial on damages in the original condemnation proceeding was still required. The Texas Supreme Court remanded the condemnation proceeding to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The Texas Constitution provides that “[t]he District Judges may exchange districts, or hold courts for each other when they may deem it expedient, and shall do so when required by law.” No formal order is needed for an exchange or transfer to take place. If a judge lacks subject matter jurisdiction over a case, that judge cannot gain jurisdiction through an exchange of benches. This rule is incompatible with the Reads’ view that exchanging benches is about jurisdiction-swapping. Rather, the right of district judges to exchange benches assumes that they already have concurrent jurisdiction over the same cases in a common county. Judge Bournias had jurisdiction irrespective of whether his appointment of the commissioners was erroneous. Under the heading “Venue,” Texas Property Code 21.013(d) directs the district and county clerks to “assign an equal number of eminent domain cases in rotation to each court with jurisdiction that the clerk serves.” The statue does not purport to confer exclusive jurisdiction upon the court to which a case is assigned, and explicitly recognizes that jurisdiction can lie with multiple courts. Furthermore, Texas Government Code 74.094(a) provides: “A district or statutory county court judge may hear and determine a matter pending in any district or statutory county court in the county regardless of whether the matter is preliminary or final or whether there is a judgment in the matter. The judge may sign a judgment or order in any of the courts regardless of whether the case is transferred. The judgment, order, or action is valid and binding as if the case were pending in the court of the judge who acts in the matter.” On the other hand, Texas Property Code 21.014 provides that “[t]he judge of a court . . . to which an eminent domain case is assigned shall appoint three disinterested freeholders who reside in the county as special commissioners.” The court of appeals noted that specific statutes control general ones and concluded that 21.014 definitively established that only Judge Sandel could appoint the commissioners. However, 21.014 contains no language suggesting that it confers exclusive jurisdiction to appoint commissioners to the judge to which an eminent domain case is assigned, and might well conflict with district judges’ constitutional right to exchange benches if it did, the court concluded. Judge Bournias had jurisdiction over this action, and any error was curable by a trial de novo. The court of appeals therefore erred in affirming the trial court’s order dismissing the action, the court held. Pinnacle was never wrongfully in possession of the Reads’ land, and the Reads therefore cannot maintain an action for wrongful entry and attorneys’ fees, the court held. OPINION: Per curiam.

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