The Tennessee Court System
Figure One depicts the structure of the Tennessee courts. The structure has four levels: trial courts of limited jurisdiction; trial courts of general jurisdiction; intermediate appellate courts; and, at the apex of the hierarchy, the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Often called “local courts” because they are funded at the local level, the courts of limited jurisdiction have jurisdiction to try minor civil and criminal matters. They also handle preliminary matters in major civil and criminal cases.
Courts of General Sessions. The most important of the courts of limited jurisdiction is the Court of General Sessions. The general sessions courts were created by the state legislature in 1960 to replace the antiquated justice of the peace system. There are now general sessions courts in all ninety-five of Tennessee’s counties, although two counties in East Tennessee refer to these courts as “trial justice courts.” The jurisdiction of the general sessions courts varies from county to county based on private acts adopted by the General Assembly. But, essentially, these courts handle preliminary matters in major criminal cases and have jurisdiction to try minor criminal and civil matters.
General sessions judges have the authority to issue search and arrest warrants. They also have power to set bonds for persons released from custody pending resolution of their case. General sessions courts also conduct preliminary hearings on criminal charges prior to these cases being bound over to the grand jury. The sessions courts also have jurisdiction to try misdemeanors, although in practice the appropriate trial court of general jurisdiction resolves most of these cases. General sessions courts do not empanel juries, so any trial in this court is before the bench. General sessions judges also serve as juvenile judges except in counties in which the legislature has established a separate Juvenile Court.
In terms of civil jurisdiction, the general sessions courts are authorized to try small claims. They also have jurisdiction over suits to recover personal property with no limit on dollar value. Because the sessions courts are not courts of record, appeals from their judgements take the form of trial de novo in the courts of general jurisdiction.
Juvenile Courts. Beginning in the late 19th century, states established juvenile courts as an alternative approach to dealing with crimes committed by juveniles. The idea was to remove juveniles from the harsh system of criminal justice for adult offenders and place them in a system that emphasized rehabilitation rather than punishment. Tennessee first established juvenile courts in 1905, but only in the three most urbanized counties of the state. Today, there are juvenile courts in 17 of the state’s 31 judicial districts. These courts have exclusive jurisdiction in proceedings involving minors alleged to be delinquent, unruly, dependent or neglected. Juvenile courts also have concurrent jurisdiction with circuit, chancery and probate courts in some areas. In districts lacking juvenile courts, jurisdiction over juvenile cases is vested in the general sessions court. It is increasingly common, in Tennessee and elsewhere, for juvenile courts to waive jurisdiction when minors are charged with serious criminal offenses. This is especially likely in the case of older juveniles with extensive “track records.” Waiver of jurisdiction occurs on the motion of the district attorney general. If this motion is granted, the case is transferred to the criminal (or circuit) court so that the juvenile can be tried and sentenced as an adult.
Municipal Courts. Also known as “city courts,” municipal courts have geographical jurisdiction within their particular cities. About three hundred of Tennessee’s cities have municipal courts. Their substantive jurisdiction extends to the violation of city ordinances. The most common matters these courts deal with are parking and traffic violations. Many cities in Tennessee have adopted ordinances that mirror state criminal law in the area of misdemeanor offenses. This permits such offenses, when committed within city boundaries, to be tried by municipal courts, which provides an additional revenue stream to cities. Generally, a municipal judge may assess fines up to $50 and jail sentences up to 30 days. However, jurisdiction varies widely from city to city. Decisions of the municipal courts are subject to review via trial de novo in the courts of general jurisdiction.
Municipal courts are constituted by their respective city charters, which set forth the qualifications for city judges. For example, the Knoxville city charter provides:
There shall be a judge of the municipal court of said city who shall be elected by the qualified voters of said city, and shall hold office for a term of four (4) years, and until a successor is elected and qualified. Said judge shall be not less than thirty (30) years old, and shall have been a resident of said city for three (3) years immediately prior to election, and shall be licensed to practice law in the State of Tennessee.
Ostensibly, municipal courts serve as a convenient means of disposing of minor matters. But they have been criticized for the informality of their procedures, which some would say borders on caprice. Certainly a disproportionate number of complaints filed with the Administrative Office of the Courts relate to the municipal courts.
Some would go so far as to characterize the municipal courts as revenue-raising agencies rather than judicial tribunals. Without question, the municipal courts would be a primary target for abolition if reformers could remake the state judiciary.
Tennessee’s 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are Circuit Courts and Chancery Courts, as provided by the state constitution. About one-third of these districts also feature specialized criminal courts, and a few even have separate probate courts to handle estates. Since 1984 trial judges in each district have elected one of their number to serve as presiding judge for that district.
Circuit Courts. The Circuit Courts are courts of general jurisdiction, which means that they hear both civil and criminal cases. (However, in thirteen of the state’s 31 judicial districts there are separate criminal courts.) Circuit also hear appeals from courts of limited jurisdiction.
Chancery Courts. Chancery Courts are exclusively civil courts. They were established as “courts of equity” (as distinct from “courts of law”) to handle matters falling outside traditional common-law actions. Chancery Courts are a good example of the court system’s English heritage. The traditional equity courts are based on the English system in which the chancellor acted as the “King’s conscience. Chancellors may, by law and tradition, modify the application of strict legal rules and adapt the relief given to the circumstances of individual cases. Until recently, the Chancery Courts maintained this distinctive character. Cases were heard by Chancellors (as distinct from “judges”) in whom considerable discretion was vested. Chancery Courts did not conduct jury trials. Today, the Chancery Court is very similar to the Circuit Court (indeed their jurisdictions overlap). Although still presided over by Chancellors, Chancery Courts now operate according to the same procedures as the Circuit Courts. They conduct jury trials.
Criminal Courts. Criminal Courts established by the General Assembly to relieve Circuit Courts in areas where they are justified by heavy caseloads. Criminal Courts exist in 13 of the State’s 31 judicial districts. In addition to having jurisdiction over criminal cases, the criminal court judges hear misdemeanor appeals from lower courts. In districts without Criminal Courts, criminal cases are handled at the trial level by Circuit Court judges.
One of the features that distinguishes the Tennessee court system is the bifurcated structure of intermediate appellate courts. In 1895 the General Assembly created the Court of Chancery Appeals. In 1907 this tribunal, renamed the Court of Civil Appeals, acquired appellate jurisdiction over the circuit as well as the chancery courts. In 1925 the name was changed to the Court of Appeals. In 1967, the legislature established the Court of Criminal Appeals to handle routine appeals in criminal cases. Thus, at present there are two intermediate appellate courts, one for civil cases and one for criminal cases. Tennessee is one of only two states to have such a structure at the intermediate appellate level.
The Court of Appeals. Currently composed of twelve judges, the Court of Appeals hears most appeals of civil cases from lower courts. The Court of Appeals meets in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson. When meeting in Jackson, Nashville or Knoxville, the court hears cases originating in the lower courts from that grand division of the state. Normally, the Court of Appeals hears cases in panels of three judges. As strictly an appellate body, the Court of Appeals does not take testimony or admit evidence. It merely reviews the records of lower courts to determine whether there is reversible error. In reviewing lower court proceedings, the Court of Appeals is guided by the briefs submitted by counsel for both parties to a case. Additionally, the court holds oral argument in which counsel appear to make arguments orally and answer questions from the bench. Like most court proceedings, these oral arguments are open to the public, although people seldom attend. Cases are decided in private conferences but the court’s decisions, contained in and justified by written opinions, are reported publicly. Decisions of the Court of Appeals may be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, although the latter hears such appeals at its discretion. Thus the Court of Appeals is final in most instances.
Court of Criminal Appeals. In the 1960s, when the Tennessee Supreme Court needed relief from routine criminal appeals, the General Assembly might have expanded the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals to deal with this caseload. But the Court of Appeals judges, not wishing to expand their repertoire, persuaded the legislature to create a parallel tribunal exclusively for routine criminal appeals. Also composed of twelve judges, the Court of Criminal Appeals operates in essentially the same way as its civil counterpart, but its jurisdiction is limited to:
(1) Criminal cases, both felony and
(2) Habeas corpus and Post-Conviction Procedure Act proceedings attacking the validity of a final judgment of conviction or the sentence in a criminal case, and other cases or proceedings instituted with reference to or arising out of a criminal case;
(3) Civil or criminal contempt arising out of a criminal matter; and
(4) Extradition cases.
As with the Court of Appeals, panels of three judges sit monthly in Jackson, Knoxville and Nashville to hear cases. Of course, the Tennessee Supreme Court retains discretionary jurisdiction to review decisions of the Court of Criminal Appeals.
At the apex of the judicial hierarchy is the Tennessee Supreme Court. Composed of five justices, not more than two of whom can live in any one of the state’s grand divisions, the Supreme Court has the final word on all questions of state law. The state constitution requires the court to meet in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson. While sitting in each of these cities, the Court hears appeals from its respective grand division of the state.
The creation of the intermediate appellate courts to handle routine civil and criminal appeals has enabled the Supreme Court to concentrate on the most important issues of state law. The only cases that may by-pass the intermediate level are those in which the principal question is the constitutionality of a state statute or a local ordinance “there is a special need for expedited decision and which involve (A) State taxes; (B) The right to hold or retain public office; or (C) Issues of constitutional law.” In such cases the Supreme Court may assume jurisdiction directly, assuming one of the parties to the case requests it to do so. The only cases in which the Tennessee Supreme Court must grant review are those involving the death penalty, disciplinary actions against attorneys and tenure of teachers. Thus, for the most part, the Tennessee Supreme Court has control over its agenda, which enables the court to play a real policymaking role in the state.
In addition to supervising the judicial interpretation of state law, the Supreme Court also plays an important role in supervising the administration of the state court system. To this end, the Supreme Court determines the rules of procedure for itself and all the other courts of the state, although these rules are subject to approval by the General Assembly.
Bibliography on the Tennessee Court System
Frederic S. Le Clercq, “The Tennessee Court System.” Memphis State University Law Review, Volume 8, Number 2 (Special Issue 1978).
Institute of Judicial Administration, Preliminary Report on the Judicial System of Tennessee (New York, 1971).
John M. Scheb II and Stephen J. Rechichar, The Politics of Judicial Modernization: The Case of the Tennessee Court System (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Bureau of Public Administration, 1986).
Lee Seifert Greene, David H. Grubbs, and Victor C. Hobday, Government in Tennessee, 3rd edition (Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press, 1975).
Thomas R. Van Dervort, “The Changing Court System,” in John R. Vile and Mark Byrnes, eds., Tennessee Government and Politics: Democracy in the Volunteer State (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998), pp. 55-57.
Questions for Discussion or Essay Examination
1. Why is there a bifurcated system of intermediate appellate courts in Tennessee?
2. Why are there multiple trial courts in Tennessee?
3. What is appellate jurisdiction of the Tennessee Supreme Court in criminal matters?
4. In Tennessee, criminal court (and circuit court) judges are elected on partisan ballots. Is this the most enlightened means of selecting these judges?
5. What courts have jurisdiction over misdemeanors in Tennessee?