Soon after its establishment in 1846, Smith County became an important legal center in East Texas. The first legal proceeding to take place in the county was a district court session held in an abandoned one-room log cabin in Tyler in December 1846.
In 1850, after the State Legislature decided the Supreme Court should meet not only in Austin but throughout the state, Tyler was made one of the court's three seats. The Supreme Court began meeting here the following year. In 1851 Tyler was also made a U. S. District Court seat. It has served as such since that time, interrupted only by the Civil War when Confederate District Court was held here.
Because the Supreme Court was overworked hearing both civil and criminal appeals, the new Texas Constitution of 1876 established the Court of Criminal Appeals to relieve the Supreme Court of its criminal jurisdiction. Rotating at the same time and to the same places as the Supreme Court, the Court of Criminal Appeals met in Tyler from its inception. Years later, state laws were passed that moved the Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals permanently to Austin. The courts continued to operate in Tyler until 1891 and 1908, respectively.