The presiding judge of each administrative judicial region can appoint a full-time or part-time associate judge to handle cases filed under Texas Family Code Subtitle E. Tex. Fam. Code § 201.201. Except as otherwise provided by Tex. Fam. Code Chapter 201, Subchapter C, Subchapter A applies to any associate judge appointed by a presiding judge to handle child protection cases filed under Texas Family Code Subtitle E, including all powers and duties. The Texas Family Code authorizes judges in civil proceedings to refer cases to associate judges appointed both under Texas Family Code Subchapters A and C to handle the disposition of a variety of case-related matters, including trials on the merits in termination of parental rights. Tex. Fam. Code § 201.005(a).

Referral to an associate judge is not binding on the parties, so if any party timely objects, the referring court must hear the trial on the merits or preside at a jury trial. Tex. Fam. Code § 201.005(b)-(c). Barring an objection, however, a Texas Family Code Chapter 201, Subchapters A or C associate judge may determine the merits in either a bench or a jury trial, subject to the parties' post-trial right to request a “de novo hearing” before the referring court, which must be heard within thirty days of a timely de novo request. Tex. Fam. Code § 201.015. A de novo hearing occurs when a party in a case heard before an associate judge requests that the referring court rehear specific issues ruled on by the associate judge.