High 10: Some Supreme Court History

There is a small museum inside the Tennessee
Supreme Court building in Nashville


Not many Tennesseans know much about the history of the Tennessee Supreme Court. Here are some points you might find interesting:

* Prior to 1834 Tennessee had no supreme court, although Tennessee had a system of courts, led by judges appointed by the legislature. The creation of a separate judicial branch, headed by a supreme court, was the main reason Tennessee wrote a new constitution that year.

* At that time, Memphis was a new place, and it wasn’t obvious that it would eventually emerge as the largest city in West Tennessee. Jackson seemed like a better place for the court to meet when it convened in that part of the state. So to this day the Tennessee Supreme Court meets in three cities: Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson.

James McReynolds
PHOTO: Library of Congress

* Six members of the Tennessee Supreme Court have gone on to serve in the U.S. Supreme Court. The most important of those was James McReynolds, who served in the U.S. Supreme Court from 1914 until 1941 and became the court’s most vocal opponent of President Franklin Roosevelt.

McReynolds was quite a character. “[He] was a lifelong bachelor who never developed social graces,” a historian once wrote. “He particularly disliked tobacco smokers and female attorneys.”

Janice Holder becomes Chief Justice
of the Tennessee Supreme Court

* The first female Chief Justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court was Janice Holder. She was sworn into this position in September 2008. Today, three of the five justices are women.

Here are a few of the most famous cases to ever come before the Tennessee Supreme Court:

* State of Tennessee v. Scopes — John Scopes, a teacher in Dayton, challenged the constitutionality of a law passed by the legislature in 1925 that made it illegal to teach evolution in public schools. Scopes was found guilty and fined $100. His attorneys appealed the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court.

Clarence Darrow speaks at the Scopes trial
PHOTO: Library of Congress

In a rather anticlimactic conclusion, the high court overturned Scopes’ fine on a technicality (it had been imposed by the judge, not the jury as the law required). The Supreme Court did not overturn the law, which actually remained in the books until the legislature deleted it years later. (To read more about this case, click here.)

This book retells the
Baker vs. Carr story in great detail.

* Baker v. Carr. From 1900 until 1960 there was a major shift in population in Tennessee from rural to urban areas. But during this period the legislature refused to order the state to be redistricted; in other words, Senate and House district boundaries did not change.

By 1960 the legislature was controlled by rural interests, while people who lived in cities felt like they weren’t being represented properly. Charles Baker of Memphis sued in an attempt to force the legislature to rewrite district lines (Carr was the Tennessee Secretary of State at the time).

The Tennessee Supreme Court effectively concluded that it didn’t have the power to order the legislature to do anything. But the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case, they ruled otherwise. As a result of this case practically every state and federal district in America had to be redrawn under a movement known as “One man, one vote.”

Early Vanderbilt graduates
Photographic Archives, Vanderbilt University

* Methodist Episcopal Church, South, v. Board of Vanderbilt University — Vanderbilt University was originally started by what was then commonly referred to as the southern Methodist church. But this case, which made it to the Tennessee Supreme Court in 1914, made it clear that the university was controlled by its trustees and not the denomination.

Had the supreme court gone along with a lower court ruling, Vanderbilt would have remained a small, religious-based institution and the Vanderbilt Medical Center probably wouldn’t exist today.

We are getting near the end.

Let’s learn a bit about how city and county governments are set up in Tennessee. Click here.