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The Tennessee Court System

In the United States, two distinct and separate judicial systems exist. The federal court system enforces law and order on a national level, while the state court system enforces law and order on a statewide level. County court systems also govern the rules and regulations of a given state, in addition to enforcing the Constitution of the United States. States vary in the way they organize and handle their courts, and typically have specialized courts for different areas of law, such as divorce, estate and juvenile law. The 95 counties of Tennessee are separated into 31 judicial districts, where both Chancery and Circuit Courts exist. Some districts within the state have established Criminal and Probate Courts. The Tennessee court system is structured in four levels: Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdictions, Trial Courts of General Jurisdictions, Intermediate Appellate Courts and the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Trial Courts of Limited Jurisdiction

The trial courts of limited jurisdiction are funded at a local level. Legal officials in these courts have the authority to try minor criminal and civil matters, as well as preliminary matters in criminal and civil cases. The Court of General Sessions is the most important court in this collective, created in 1960 to replace the older Justice of the Peace system. General Sessions courts exist in all 95 counties throughout the state, however, two eastern Tennessee counties label these courts as trial justice courts. Jurisdictions in these courts vary between counties, based on private acts established by the General Assembly.

Juvenile and Municipal Courts

Juvenile courts prefer to place juvenile offenders in rehabilitation rather than in a traditional capital punishment systems. Tennessee hosts 17 juvenile courts in 31 of the judicial districts in the state. These courts are responsible for proceedings involving minors who are declared delinquent, dependent, neglected or unruly. In districts without juvenile courts, jurisdiction for juvenile cases is handled in general sessions courts. Some juvenile courts utilize concurrent jurisdiction with the state chancery, circuit and probate courts.

Municipal courts or city courts utilize geographical jurisdiction within the city they operate. Almost 300 cities in Tennessee have municipal courts, where their substantive jurisdiction handles cases where city ordinances are violated. Traffic and parking violations are the most common cases handled by these courts. The decisions made by municipal courts can be called into a review by the judges and courts of general jurisdiction.

Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction

The Trial Courts of General Jurisdiction are a part of the 31 judicial districts in Tennessee. Each district hosts Chancery Courts and Circuit Courts, according to Tennessee’s Constitution. A third of the districts host specialized criminal courts, with some even handling probate or estate law. Since 1984, trial judges in each district elect one of their own to serve as the presiding judge for that particular district.

Circuit Courts hear criminal and civil cases in addition to appeals presented by the courts of limited jurisdiction. Chancery Courts only handle civil cases. As courts of equity, Chancery Courts handle matters that fall outside of traditional common law actions. Chancery Courts operate similarly to Circuit Courts and conduct jury trials. Criminal Courts are designed to handle cases that Circuit Courts are unable to handle, in the case of a heavy caseload. Thirteen of the state judicial districts host Criminal Courts, where criminal court judges hold jurisdiction over criminal cases and misdemeanor appeals from the lower courts. Districts without Criminal Courts are handled at the trial level by Circuit Court judges.

The Intermediate Appellate Courts and the Tennessee Supreme Court

The Tennessee Intermediate Appellate Courts operate under a unique bifurcated structure. Today, two intermediate appellate courts exist for handling criminal cases and civil cases. Tennessee is currently one of two states to have a bifurcated structure for their intermediate appellate courts.

The Court of Appeals hosts 12 judges that hear civil case appeals from the lower courts. When the Court of Appeals meets in Nashville, Knoxville or Jackson, lower court cases are reviewed by a panel of three judges. Since the Court of Appeals exists as an appellate body, they do not take evidence or admit testimonies, but instead review cases to learn if reversible errors are present. The Court of Criminal Appeals exists to handle criminal cases in the same way as its counterpart. Jurisdictions here are limited to only the following types of cases: misdemeanor and felony cases, Post-Conviction Procedure Act and habeas corpus proceedings extradition cases, criminal or civil contempt that may originate from a criminal matter.

The Tennessee Supreme Court sits at the top of the judicial hierarchy within the state. The judicial panel hosts five judges who present the final word on state law when they meet in Knoxville, Jackson, and Nashville to hear appeals from the grand divisions of the state. The Tennessee Supreme Court concentrates on handling the most important issues of state law. The Tennessee Supreme Court reviews cases where the main issue involves determining if a local ordinance or state statute is constitutional. In addition, the Tennessee Supreme Court reviews cases involving disciplinary action against attorneys, the death penalty and the tenure of teachers. The Tennessee Supreme Court is also responsible for supervising and administrating the state court system.


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