PLENARY POWER EXPIRED | VOID ORDER | APPEAL FROM ASSOCIATE JUDGE TO REFERRING
COURT

In re The Office of Attorney General of Texas (Tex.App.- Houston [1st Dist.] May 22,
2008)(Taft) (mandamus) (order setting aside prior order found void, entered after expiration of
plenary jurisdiction, associated judge's order, appeal to referring court, confirmation order,
child
support review order, motion for new trial) GRANT PETITION FOR WRIT OF MANDAMUS: Opinion by
Justice Tim Taft
Before Justices Taft, Jennings and Bland
01-08-00114-CV In re The Office of the Attorney General of Texas
Appeal from
308th District Court of Harris County Trial Court Judge: Hon. Georgia Dempster

Disposition: We withdraw our February 21, 2008 order granting a temporary stay. We grant the
petition for writ of mandamus. The trial judge is ordered to vacate the following orders: (1) the
November 19, 2007 order affirming the associate judge’s October 17, 2007 order vacating his earlier
confirmation order and (2) the January 30, 2008 order granting the motion for new trial of Preston and
setting a new trial. We are confident that the trial judge will comply with our determination; writ will
issue only if the trial judge fails to so comply.


O P I N I O N

Relator, the Office of the Attorney General of Texas (“the Attorney General”), has filed a petition for
writ of mandamus challenging two orders of the trial judge:
 The Honorable Georgia Dempster, Judge of the
308th District Court of HarrisCounty, Texas. The underlying cause is In re D.D.P. & D.P., No. 2000-13984 -
the
November 19, 2007 order affirming an associate judge’s October 17, 2007 ruling, which had vacated
a June 18, 2007 order confirming a non-agreed child-support review order (“CSRO”), and (2) the
January 30, 2008 order granting the motion for new trial of the real party in interest, Sean Adrian
Preston, and setting a new trial.

We determine whether the challenged orders are void for having been entered outside the trial court’
s plenary power. Answering in the affirmative, we grant the petition and conditionally issue the writ.

Background

On July 17, 2000, the trial court signed an agreed order that, among doing other things, established
the parent-child relationship between Preston and the two children who were the subject of a suit
affecting the parent-child relationship (“SAPCR”) and ordered Preston to pay $344 per month in child
support to Rose Sanchez, the children’s mother. Some time in early 2007, the Attorney General
sought to modify Preston’s child-support obligation pursuant to Texas Family Code chapter 233,
which provides an expedited administrative procedure for issuing CSROs in certain circumstances.
See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§ 233.001–.029 (Vernon 2002).

The Attorney General notified the parties that a negotiation conference in the administrative
proceeding would be held on February 28, 2007. See id. §§ 233.009(a)–(c), (e) (Vernon 2002)
(allowing agency to serve notice on all parties of proposed CSRO and of negotiation conference to
discuss said notice and to schedule and to conduct conference), 233.0095(a)–(c) (Vernon 2002)
(same, in cases in which paternity has been acknowledged), 233.010(a) (Vernon 2002) (requiring
service of notice of negotiation conference). The record supports the trial judge’s finding that,
although the Attorney General served notice of the negotiation conference on Preston, Preston did
not receive that notice.

On February 28, 2007, the negotiation conference was held, but Preston did not attend. At that
conference, pursuant to Texas Family Code chapter 233, the Attorney General adopted a non-
agreed CSRO that increased Preston’s child-support obligation to $640 per month. See id. §§ 233.010
(b) (allowing Attorney General to “proceed with the review and file a child support review order
according to the information available” to it when party fails to attend negotiation conference),
233.013 (Vernon 2002) (providing guidelines for determining amount of child support), 233.015(a)
(Vernon 2002) (allowing for entry of final decision in form of non-agreed CSRO). On March 17, 2007,
as required by chapter 233, the Attorney General filed a petition to confirm the non-agreed CSRO
with the trial court that had heard the earlier SAPCR. See id. § 233.020 (Vernon 2002) (providing for
filing of petition to confirm non-agreed CSRO). Sanchez waived service of process. The record
undisputedly supports the trial court’s finding that Preston was served with the petition to confirm the
non-agreed CSRO on April 11, 2007.

Despite having been served with the petition for confirmation of the non-agreed CSRO, Preston did
not answer or file an objection to the petition or request a hearing. See id. §§ 233.022(a) (Vernon
2002) (requiring court to consider any responsive pleading that is intended as objection to
confirmation of non-agreed CSRO, including general denial, as request for hearing), 233.023 (Vernon
2002) (providing that request for hearing on petition for confirmation of non-agreed CSRO be filed no
later than 20 days after order is delivered to party).

Accordingly, on June 18, 2007, an associate judge signed an order confirming the non-agreed CSRO.
See id. § 233.0271(a) (Vernon 2002) (requiring that court confirm and sign non-agreed CSRO “not
later than the 30th day after the date the petition for confirmation was delivered to the last party
entitled to service”). No one appealed the June 18 confirmation order to the referring court.

On August 20, 2007, Preston moved the associate judge to vacate his June 18 confirmation order.
Preston’s motion to vacate was premised on Texas Family Code section 233.0271(a), which requires
that the trial court sign an order confirming a non-agreed CSRO “not later than the 30th day after the
date the petition for confirmation was delivered to the last party entitled to service.” Id. § 233.0271(a).
In that motion, Preston urged that, because the associate judge had failed to sign the confirmation
order within 30 days of its delivery to Preston—that is, before May 11, 2007, 30 days after Preston
had been served with the confirmation petition—the associate judge’s June 18 confirmation order was
void for having been rendered after the court had “lost its special authority to confirm the [non-agreed
CSRO].” That is, Preston viewed the 30-day requirement for signing a confirmation order under
section 233.0271(a) to be jurisdictional.

Preston requested that the associate judge vacate his June 18 confirmation order for its being void.

The associate judge apparently agreed with Preston because, on October 17, 2007, he entered an
order vacating his June 18 confirmation order. The Attorney General appealed the October 17 ruling
to the referring court, contesting the associate judge’s implicit conclusions that the trial court (1) had
jurisdiction to entertain and to grant a motion to vacate that had been filed more than 30 days after
the June 18 confirmation order had been signed and (2) lacked subject-matter jurisdiction to sign the
non-agreed CSRO more than 30 days after Preston had been served. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. §§
201.015, 201.1042 (Vernon Supp. 2007) (allowing and providing procedures for de novo hearing
before referring court to appeal associate judge’s rulings).

The trial judge of the referring court held a de novo hearing on the Attorney General’s appeal on
November 9, 2007, during which the judge ruled verbally to affirm the associate judge’s ruling on the
basis that the associate judge had not signed the confirmation order within 30 days of service on
Preston. Ten days later, the trial judge signed an order reflecting this ruling:

After hearing evidence presented and argument of counsel, [t]he Court . . . finds that the ruling by the
Associate Judge . . . should be affirmed and that [the non-agreed CSRO] of June 18, 2007 should be
vacated. The Court bases its ruling upon the finding that the plenary power of the . . . Court expired
before the Court was presented with the [non-agreed CSRO] for confirmation over 65 days following
service of the last party entitled to service in this proceeding. The Court finds that Respondent, Sean
Preston, was served with the Petition for Confirmation of [the non-agreed CSRO] on April 11, 2007
but that the . . . Court did not sign [the non-agreed CSRO] until June 18, 2007. The Court further
found that it was incumbent upon the moving party, the Office of the Attorney General, to check
service and to ensure that the return of service be timely filed with the papers in this cause so that the
Order of Confirmation can be timely signed by the . . . Court as required by [Texas Family Code
section] 233.0271.

On December 18, 2007, the Attorney General moved to vacate the trial judge’s November 19, 2007
order affirming the associate judge’s October 17 ruling. On January 17, 2008, the trial judge of the
referring court entered findings of fact and conclusions of law concerning its November 19 order of
affirmance. Therein, the trial judge found (1) that the Attorney General sent notice of the instigation of
the child-support review proceeding and of the negotiation conference to Preston, but he did not
receive the notice; (2) that Preston’s wages were less than had been determined at the negotiation
conference for which he did not receive notice; (3) that Preston was served on April 11, 2007 with the
Attorney General’s petition for confirmation of the non-agreed CSRO; (4) that the return of citation on
Preston was filed on May 3, 2007, but was not entered into the Judicial Information Management
System (“J.I.M.S.”) of Harris County until May 15, 2007;
The return of citation thus would not have appeared
on J.I.M.S. until after the30 days provided by Texas Family Code section 233.0271 had passed. Thisfact was
discussed at the November 9 hearing before the trial judge of thereferring court
and that the associate judge
signed the order confirming the non-agreed CSRO on June 18, 2007.

The trial judge concluded (1) that it was the responsibility of the Attorney General, as the moving
party, to ensure that the return of service was timely filed with the papers of the cause so that the
confirmation order could be signed within the time period required by Texas Family Code section
233.0271  
This conclusion of law was mislabeled as a finding of fact, but we may consider it for what it is. See, e.g.,
Ray v. Farmers State Bank of Hart, 576S.W.2d 607, 608 n.1 (Tex. 1979)
 and (2) that the order confirming the
non-agreed CSRO was not signed within 30 days of Preston’s being served with the Attorney General’
s confirmation petition, so that the “jurisdiction and plenary power of the court had expired and
therefore the [confirmation] order entered on June 18, 2007 is void and therefore should be vacated
as it was presented for confirmation after the plenary power of the . . . Court had expired.”

The Attorney General’s motion to vacate was heard on January 30, 2008, but the trial judge of the
referring court never expressly ruled on it. However, on the same day on which she held the hearing,
the trial judge signed an order granting Preston’s motion for new trial. The Attorney General then
sought mandamus relief in this Court. We stayed further proceedings in the trial court pending the
outcome of this mandamus proceeding.

Mandamus Standards

Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy, which will generally issue only to correct a clear abuse of
discretion or a violation of a duty imposed by law when there is no adequate remedy by appeal. In re
Ford Motor Co., 165 S.W.3d 315, 317 (Tex. 2005); Walker v. Packer, 827 S.W.2d 833, 839 (Tex.
1992). A trial court abuses its discretion when it errs in determining what the law is or in applying the
law to the facts. In re Bruce Terminix Co., 988 S.W.2d 702, 703 (Tex. 1998).

Mandamus is available when a judge acts outside of his court’s jurisdiction, i.e., when the judicial act
is void. In re Union Pac. Res. Co., 969 S.W.2d 427, 428 nn. 1, 2 (Tex. 1998); In re Cornyn, 27 S.W.3d
327, 332 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2000, orig. proceeding). Despite the general requirement
that no adequate remedy by appeal exist for mandamus relief to be granted, mandamus will issue to
vacate a void order even when there is an adequate remedy by appeal. In re Cornyn, 27 S.W.3d at
332 (“[M]andamus will lie to prevent a court from exercising jurisdiction it does not have, even if there
is an adequate remedy by appeal.”). A trial court’s action is void when, for example, it had no subject-
matter jurisdiction to take that action. See Mapco, Inc. v. Forrest, 795 S.W.2d 700, 703 (Tex. 1990).

Voidness of the Complained-of Orders

The Attorney General first argues that the associate judge’s June 18, 2007 order confirming the non-
agreed CSRO was not void even though it was signed more than 30 days after the confirmation
petition was served on Preston. Because the June 18 order was not appealed to the referring court,
the Attorney General argues that it became the trial court’s final judgment by operation of law. The
Attorney General thus also argues that all further orders of the trial court—the associate judge’s
October 17, 2007 ruling vacating the June 18 confirmation order; the trial judge’s November 19, 2007
order affirming the associate judge’s October 17 ruling; and the trial judge’s January 30, 2008 order
granting a new trial—were all void for having been rendered outside the trial court’s plenary power.

A.      Whether the June 18, 2007 Confirmation Order Was Void

In issue one, the Attorney General argues that the associate judge’s June 18, 2007 order confirming
the non-agreed CSRO was not void.

“The office of the attorney general is designated as the state’s Title IV-D agency.” Tex. Fam. Code
Ann. § 231.001 (Vernon 2002). The purpose of chapter 233 of the Texas Family Code is to enable
Title IV-D agencies like the Attorney General “to take expedited administrative actions to establish,
modify, and enforce child support and medical support obligations, to determine parentage, or to take
any other action authorized or required under Part D, Title IV, of the federal Social Security Act . . . .”
Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 233.001(a) (Vernon 2002).

To fulfill that purpose, chapter 233’s provisions promote expeditious resolution of the administrative
proceedings. For example, a party receiving notice of the instigation of the chapter 233 administrative
proceeding has only 15 days from the date of receipt or delivery of the agency’s notice to execute an
affidavit of financial resources. See id. § 233.006(b)(1) (Vernon 2002). Likewise, when the agency
later serves notice of a proposed CSRO on the parties, they have only 15 days to request a
negotiation conference or to contest the notice. See id. §§ 233.009(b)(3), 233.0095(b)(3) (Vernon
2002). When no one requests a negotiation conference, the agency has the option of nonetheless
holding a negotiation conference or, if the parties have agreed to and signed the proposed CSRO, of
immediately presenting the order to the court for confirmation. See id. §§ 233.009(c), (f), 233.0095(c),
(f) (Vernon 2002).

Similarly, if a negotiation conference is held, and the “parties reach an agreement [at the conference],
the agency’s review officer will prepare an agreed [CSRO] that will be effective immediately on being
confirmed by the court.” Id. § 233.012(2) (Vernon 2002). The court must sign an agreed CSRO not
later than the third day after its filing. See id. § 233.024(a) (Vernon 2002). If the parties do not reach
agreement at the negotiation conference, the agency has only five days after the conference to issue
a non-agreed CSRO or a determination that no such order will issue. See id. § 233.015(a) (Vernon
2002). If the agency issues a non-agreed CSRO and files in court a petition to confirm it, then a party
has only 20 days thereafter to request a hearing. See id. 233.023 (Vernon 2002); see also id. §
233.012(5) (Vernon 2002). The court must hold the requested hearing no later than 30 days after the
request is filed, and it may reset the hearing not later than 30 days after the date set for the initial
hearing. See id. § 233.026(a), (c) (Vernon Supp. 2007). If after a hearing the court determines that
the non-agreed CSRO should be confirmed, it must immediately sign an order confirming the non-
agreed CSRO; if the court concludes that the relief sought in the agency’s non-agreed CSRO is
inappropriate, it must sign an appropriate order “at the conclusion of the hearing or as soon after the
conclusion of the hearing as is practical . . . .” Id. § 233.027(a)(1), (2) (Vernon Supp. 2007). On the
signing of a confirmation order after a hearing, the non-agreed CSRO becomes a final order of the
court. See id. § 233.027(b) (Vernon Supp. 2007).

As a further example of the Legislature’s intent in chapter 233 to promote expeditious resolution of
these proceedings, a court may not hold a hearing on a petition to confirm a non-agreed CSRO if a
party does not timely request a hearing. See id. § 233.026(b) (Vernon Supp. 2007). Accordingly, if a
request for a hearing has not been timely received, the court “shall confirm and sign a [non-agreed
CSRO] not later than the 30th day after the date the petition for confirmation was delivered to the last
party entitled to service.” Id. § 233.0271(a) (Vernon 2002).

All of these procedures demonstrate an intent to expedite administrative child-support-review
proceedings and orders.

Because Preston did not request a hearing on the Attorney General’s petition to confirm the non-
agreed CSRO, section 233.0271 applies. See id. § 233.0217. That section provides that a court
“shall” sign the non-agreed CSRO within 30 days of the confirmation petition’s delivery to the last
party entitled to service. Id. § 233.0217(a). It is undisputed that the associate judge did not sign the
confirmation order within the required 30 days. It was on this basis that the associate judge and the
judge of the referring court concluded that the associate judge’s June 18 confirmation order was void.
The issue for our consideration is whether the 30-day requirement of section 233.0271(a) is
jurisdictional or not. If it is, then the associate judge’s failure to sign the confirmation order within 30
days deprived the trial court of subject-matter jurisdiction to enter such an order, rendering the June
18 confirmation order void. In contrast, if the 30-day requirement is not jurisdictional, then the
associate judge’s failure to sign the confirmation order within 30 days did not deprive the trial court of
jurisdiction, and the confirmation order could be entered at a later date. This is an issue of first
impression with regard to Texas Family Code section 233.0271(a).

“Our primary goal is to ascertain and effectuate the Legislature’s intent.” Cardinal Health Staffing
Network, Inc., 106 S.W.3d 230, 237 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2003, no pet.). In carrying out this
duty, “we begin with the statute’s plain language because we assume that the Legislature tried to say
what it meant and, thus, that its words are the surest guide to its intent.” Id. at 237–38. Section
233.0271(a) provides:

If a request for hearing [to contest the confirmation petition] has not been timely received, the court
shall confirm and sign a nonagreed child support review order not later than the 30th day after the
date the petition for confirmation was delivered to the last party entitled to service.

Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 233.0271(a) (emphasis added). “Shall” generally indicates something
mandatory. See, e.g., Tex. Gov’t Code Ann. § 311.016(2) (Vernon 2005) (noting that, unless context
requires otherwise, “shall” imposes duty); Helena Chem. Co. v. Wilkins, 47 S.W.3d 486, 493 (Tex.
2001) (stating that both “must” and “shall” “are generally recognized as mandatory”). However, “[e]
ven if a statutory requirement is mandatory, this does not mean that compliance is necessarily
jurisdictional.” Wilkins, 47 S.W.3d at 494. Put another way, “the issue is not whether ‘shall’ is
mandatory, but what consequences follow a failure to comply.” State v. $435,000.00, 842 S.W.2d 642,
644 (Tex. 1992). For this reason, courts “have historically looked to two factors to determine if the
Legislature intended a provision to be jurisdictional: (1) the presence or absence of specific
consequences for noncompliance . . . and (2) the consequences that result from each possible
interpretation . . . .” Wilkins, 47 S.W.3d at 495 (citations omitted).

Section 233.0271(a) does not state whether it is jurisdictional. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 233.0271
(a). Nor does it provide any consequence for the failure to sign the confirmation order within 30 days
of the confirmation petition’s delivery. See id. Specifically, there is no corresponding provision in
section 233.0271 or in chapter 233 requiring dismissal of the confirmation proceeding for
noncompliance with the 30-day requirement.

Interpreting similar statutes containing expedited timelines for court action, courts have readily held
that deadlines like that in section 233.0271(a) are mandatory, but not jurisdictional, when the statute
is silent on the consequences of failure to comply.  See State v. $435,000.00, 842 S.W.2d 642, 644
(Tex. 1992) (interpretingformer forfeiture statute, which then required that “a time for hearing
onforfeiture shall be set within 30 days” of the claimant’s answer to recoverproperty, not to be
jurisdictional); Charlton v. State, No. 05-05-01043-CR,2008 WL 726190, at *4 (Tex. App.—Dallas Mar.
19, 2008, no pet. h.)(interpreting Texas Family Code section 233.024, which requires that courtsign
agreed CSRO not later than third day after filing with court, not to bejurisdictional); In re E.D.L., 105 S.
W.3d 679, 688 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth2003, pet. denied) (interpreting Texas Family Code section
262.201(a), whichrequired that “a full adversary hearing shall be held not later than the 14th dayafter
[the agency’s removal of the children],” not to be jurisdictional);Fountain v. Knebel, 45 S.W.3d 736,
739 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2001, no pet.)(interpreting Texas Family Code section 201.015(f), which
required referringcourt to hold hearing on appeal from associate judge’s ruling within 30 days,not to
be jurisdictional); Harrell v. Harrell, 986 S.W.2d 629, 631 (Tex.App.—El Paso 1998, no pet.) (same);
Honts v. Shaw, 975 S.W.2d 816, 820(Tex. App.—Austin 1998, no pet.) (interpreting Texas Election
Code section232.012(d), which provided that “[t]he judge shall set the contest for trial fora date not
later than the fifth day” after a certain event, not to be jurisdictional);Godwin v. Aldine Indep. Sch.
Dist., 961 S.W.2d 219, 221 (Tex. App.—Houston[1st Dist.] 1997, writ denied) (interpreting Texas Tax
Code section 33.74(g),which required referring court to hold hearing on appeal from master-in-
chancery’s ruling within 45 days, not to be jurisdictional); Ex parte Brown, 875S.W.2d 756, 760 (Tex.
App.—Fort Worth 1994, orig. proceeding) (interpretingpredecessor to Texas Family Code section
201.015(f), which required referringcourt to hold hearing on appeal from associate judge’s ruling
within 30 days,not to be jurisdictional).

Close In particular, the Dallas Court of Appeals has very recently held that Texas Family Code section
233.024, which requires that the court sign an agreed CSRO not later than the third day after its filing
with court, is not jurisdictional. See Charlton v. State, No. 05-05-01043-CR, 2008 WL 726190, at *4
(Tex. App.—Dallas Mar. 19, 2008, no pet. h.). The underlying reasoning is that, had the Legislature
intended for the statutory deadline to be jurisdictional, it could have provided such a consequence,
but did not. See $435,000.00, 842 S.W.2d at 644; Ex parte Brown, 875 S.W.2d 756, 760 (Tex. App.—
Fort Worth 1994, orig. proceeding). These courts conclude that, if the required judicial action is not
done within the statutorily mandated period, an affected party may seek mandamus relief to compel
the trial judge to take that action; however, the trial court does not lose subject-matter jurisdiction to
act. See $435,000.00, 842 S.W.2d at 644–45; In re E.D.L., 105 S.W.3d 679, 688 (Tex. App.—Fort
Worth 2003, pet. denied); Fountain v. Knebel, 45 S.W.3d 736, 739 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2001, no pet.);
Harrell v. Harrell, 986 S.W.2d 629, 631 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1998, no pet.); Godwin v. Aldine Indep.
Sch. Dist., 961 S.W.2d 219, 221 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 1997, writ denied); Ex parte Brown,
875 S.W.2d at 760.

The same logic applies here. The purpose of chapter 233 is to allow agencies like the Attorney
General to take expedited administrative action to modify child-support obligations, among doing
other things. See Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 233.001(a). That purpose is not well-served if the trial court
must dismiss any confirmation petition that is not heard within the required time, requiring the Attorney
General to reinstitute the proceedings. See Charlton, 2008 WL 726190, at *4 (“[N]othing in the statute
makes an agreed [CSRO] signed after the three-day period void. Indeed, such a reading of the
statute runs directly contrary to its purpose of efficiently providing for the support of children.”); Honts
v. Shaw, 975 S.W.2d 816, 820 (Tex. App.—Austin 1998, no pet.) (interpreting 5-day deadline for
court to set trial as non-jurisdictional because interpreting it to be jurisdictional would not serve
purposes of election-contest proceedings). A better interpretation is that the 30-day requirement may
be compelled by mandamus if not observed by the trial judge. The Attorney General, as the party that
filed the confirmation petition, had the right to seek mandamus relief to compel the associate judge to
sign the confirmation order within 30 days; however, the Attorney General was also entitled to
acquiesce in the later ruling without the court’s losing subject-matter jurisdiction.  

The same is true of any affected party, including Preston, who admitted havingbeen served with
notice of the confirmation petition’s filing.

Close See Harrell, 986 S.W.2d at 631 (“[Family Code] section 201.015(f) is a deadline, a procedural
requirement for the trial court, not the parties. . . . While Appellant certainly had the ability to pursue
mandamus relief with regard to the trial court’s failure to set the matter within thirty days, she was also
entitled to acquiesce in a later trial setting.”). Its acquiescing in the later ruling did not deprive the trial
court of subject-matter jurisdiction. See id.

We sustain issue one.

B.      Whether the Subsequent Orders Were Void

In issue two, the Attorney General argues that, because the June 18 confirmation order was neither
void nor appealed to the referring court, it became the final judgment in the cause. The Attorney
General further argues that, because all subsequent orders vacating the confirmation order or
granting a new trial were rendered after the trial court’s plenary power (as calculated from the
confirmation order’s signing) had expired, they were void.

“A child support review order issued under this chapter [Texas Family Code chapter 233] and
confirmed by a court constitutes an order of the court and is enforceable by any means available for
the enforcement of child support obligations under this code . . . .” Tex. Fam. Code Ann. § 233.001(b)
(Vernon 2002). After a court confirms a non-agreed CSRO, as was done here, the parties have 30
days to file a motion for new trial. See id. § 233.0271(b). These provisions indicate that an order
confirming a CSRO is a final judgment in the cause, from which point plenary power runs for 30 days.

In this case, an associate judge signed the confirmation order. “If a request for a de novo hearing [of
the associate judge’s ruling] before the referring court is not timely filed . . . , the proposed order or
judgment of the associate judge . . . shall become the order or judgment of the referring court by
operation of law without ratification by the referring court.” Id. § 201.1041(a) (Vernon Supp. 2007).

A party has seven days in which to request a de novo hearing before the referring court to challenge
the associate judge’s ruling. Id. §§ 201.1041(b), 201.015(a) (Vernon Supp. 2007). Because Preston
did not appeal the associate judge’s June 18 confirmation order to the referring court, it became the
order of the referring court by operation of law no later than June 25, 2007. Preston filed his motion to
vacate the associate judge’s June 18 confirmation order on August 20, 2007. Thirty days after the
associate judge’s order became the court’s final order was July 25, 2007; thirty days after the
associate judge signed the confirmation order was July 18, 2007. By either calculation, Preston’s
motion to vacate was filed outside the trial court’s plenary power.

Orders entered outside a trial court’s plenary power are void. See, e.g., State ex rel. Latty v. Owens,
907 S.W.2d 484, 485 (Tex. 1995) (“Judicial action taken after the court’s jurisdiction over a cause has
expired is a nullity.”). “Mandamus relief is appropriate when a trial court issues an order after its
plenary power has expired” because such rulings are void.
In re Brookshire Grocery Co., No. 05-
0300, 2008 WL 53702, at *1 (Tex. Jan. 4, 2008); In re Dickason, 987 S.W.2d 570, 571 (Tex. 1998).
The associate judge’s October 17, 2007 order, as well as both of the orders of which the Attorney
General complains, were entered outside the trial court’s plenary power, as calculated from the June
18, 2007 order confirming the non-agreed CSRO. Accordingly, all three orders are void, and the June
18, 2007 order confirming the non-agreed CSRO stands as the final judgment in this cause. See
State ex rel. Latty, 907 S.W.2d at 486 (“We declare the order appealed from void because it was
signed after the district court’s plenary jurisdiction expired. This leaves intact as the final order in this
case the prior order establishing Owens’ paternity and setting child support.”).

We sustain issue two.

Conclusion

We withdraw our February 21, 2008 order granting a temporary stay. We grant the petition for writ of
mandamus. The trial judge is ordered to vacate the following orders: (1) the November 19, 2007 order
affirming the associate judge’s October 17, 2007 order vacating his earlier confirmation order and (2)
the January 30, 2008 order granting the motion for new trial of Preston and setting a new trial. We are
confident that the trial judge will comply with our determination; writ will issue only if the trial judge fails
to so comply.

Tim Taft

Justice

Panel consists of Justices Taft, Jennings, and Bland.