No different from the judicial network of other states, the Tennessee court system can be broadly classified into two categories: appellate courts and trial tribunals. A third classification is that of non –jury courts; however, these can also be included into a further bifurcation that is possible of the judicial entities in the state. Trial courts are divided into general and limited jurisdiction tribunals.
The judicial hierarchy of any state can be studied from the bottom up or from the top down.Because the Constitution of Tennessee defines the Supreme Court as an entity in which the judicial powers of the state are vested in, it would only be fair to start a description of the judicial network of the state with what is popularly known as the last resort court.
The Appellate Court: At the top judicial rung is the Supreme Court which can rightly be defined as the ultimate authority in the state as far as matters pertaining to the judiciary are concerned. What this tribunal says is the law and there is no higher judicial entity in the state other than the Supreme Court.
So, important matters such as hearing appeals forwarded from lower tribunals, appointing judges for lower courts and overseeing the smooth functioning of the judicial system are all left to this tribunal. While a limited number of issues can be taken up to a federal court most criminal and civil matters come to an end when this court gives its verdict.
Five judges are appointed to the Supreme Court and no more than two of these reside in one of the grand divisions of the state. All matters that go to the appellate court are heard by a bench of three judges and verdict is given only when there is concurrence among the bench members.
A chief justice is chosen from among the 5 judges. The Supreme Court has discretionary powers to decide what cases will be heard; however, the constitution has not conferred original jurisdiction on this tribunal.
Intermediate Appellate Courts: These tribunals were created to lessen the massive burden of appeal cases that were being brought in front of the Supreme Court. Because the decision of every lower tribunal is subject to appeal, two intermediate appellate courts, which would exclusively hear criminal or civil matters, were included in the judicial set up.
When a matter goes to these appellate courts, the judge may uphold the verdict given by the lower court, reverse the decision or even throw the case out. The Court of Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals stand second in line to the Supreme Court. 12 judges are appointed to these tribunals and court sessions are heard alternatively in one of the three grand divisions of the state at Nashville, Knox or Jackson.
General Jurisdiction Trial Court: For all rhyme and reason, a case enters the judicial system of the state through a circuit court. These are general jurisdiction tribunals that have the authority to handle civil as well as criminal cases. Tennessee is one of the few states in the country that still follow the British system of the judiciary and also has chancery courts.
The circuit court has general and appellate jurisdiction as it can also hear all cases brought before the bench from lower courts which are treated as de novo, which means like matters that have never been heard before.
Chancery Courts: These are equity courts that function as tribunals that hear a select number of matters. However, they do hold the same jurisdiction as a circuit court when it comes to civil law. Cases from chancery courts are appealed to the Court of Appeals or may in some instances be also taken up directly in the Supreme Court.
Limited Jurisdiction tribunals: These include municipal courts, juvenile court and general session’s court. All 95 counties of the state have at least one general sessions court each; however, the jurisdiction of this tribunal can vary from one geographical division to the other. Except for in a few larger counties, these tribunals only handle preliminary hearings in felony and misdemeanor cases and civil matters in which the dispute amount does not go beyond $25000.
All cases involving persons below the age of 18 are heard by juvenile court. This tribunal has exclusive jurisdiction when it comes to cases involving minors who are alleged to be delinquents. In the approximately 300 towns and cities of Tennessee there are several municipal courts that handle cases pertaining to the violation of municipal ordinances.