When you studied civics in earlier grades, you learned that there is a five-member Tennessee Supreme Court. But you probably didn’t learn much about the other levels of the judiciary branch.
Time to do so.
But before we get started on the different levels of courts, we need to tell you about different types of courts. Three of them are:
* General Sessions court, where minor lawsuits and criminal matters are heard
* Criminal court, where serious criminal cases such as murder and kidnapping are tried
* Chancery and circuit court, which are two types of courts in which people sue each other (if you want to learn the difference between the two, we suggest you go to law school)
Every county, no matter how small, has at least ONE General Sessions judge. If you’d like to meet the one for your county, his or her courtroom is probably in your county’s courthouse.
However, some Tennessee counties are too small to justify full-time criminal, chancery and circuit judges. Because of this, Tennessee is divided into 31 judicial districts. For example, District 9 consists of Loudon, Meigs, Morgan and Roane counties. The counties making up District 9 are served by one criminal, one chancery, and one circuit judge. If someone in those counties commits a serious crime or sues someone else, the case will (in all likelihood) be heard by one of those three trial judges.
After cases are heard in criminal, chancery, and circuit court, trial results may be appealed to a higher level. To hear cases that are appealed, Tennessee has intermediate appeals courts known as the Court of Appeals (which hears appeals of chancery and circuit cases) and the Court of Criminal Appeals (which hears appeals of criminal cases). There are 12 judges on the Court of Appeals and 12 more judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals.
When a case goes to the Court of Appeals or the Court of Criminal Appeals, it goes to a panel of three (of the 12) appeals judges, who hear the case together. After hearing the case, the judges vote on whether they agree with the lower court ruling or whether they think the lower court ruling should be overturned.
If a case is appealed further, it goes to the five-member Tennessee Supreme Court, which hears cases from all types of courts.
So let’s make up an example. Let’s say that someone named Jones, who lives in Memphis, sues someone named Smith, who also lives in Memphis. In the lawsuit, Jones claims that he invested in Smith’s business and that Smith owes him money.
Since Memphis is part of Judicial District 30, the case would be tried by one of the three chancery or nine circuit judges in Judicial District 30. One of those chancery judges (who are known as chancellors, by the way), is Walter Evans. Let’s say that the case went to him.
After hearing the case, Chancellor Evans rules for Jones, and determines that Smith must pay Jones $200,000 in damages. Smith’s lawyer appeals the case. This being a civil, rather than a criminal case, it goes before the Court of Appeals (not the Court of Criminal Appeals). That means that a panel consisting of three judges hears the case. Let’s say that in this case the three appeals judges (known as appellate judges) are Goldin, Gibson and Stafford.
The Court of Appeals hears the case. Judge Goldin agrees with Chancellor Evans’ original ruling. But Judges Gibson and Stafford disagree with Judge Evans. By a vote of 2-1, the Court of Appeals reverses Evans’ decision and rules that the case should be dismissed. Now Jones’ lawyer appeals the case to the Tennessee Supreme Court, which might agree to hear the case.
A few points about this process:
* Tennesseans have a right to appeal any case to the Court of Appeals or Court of Criminal Appeals. That doesn’t mean they’ll win their appeal, of course. It also doesn’t mean that their lawyer won’t charge them a lot of money to go through the lengthy process of appealing a case. But it means that they have a right to appeal.
* Of the cases lawyers try to appeal from the appeals level to the Tennessee Supreme Court, the court only tries a small percentage of cases (about fifteen percent). Members of the court review summaries of all cases that are appealed to their level and decide in meetings which ones the high court should actually hear.
* The only types of cases the Tennessee Supreme Court must agree to hear are death penalty cases. In other words, in order to be executed in Tennessee, you have to be found guilty in criminal court and then have the sentence upheld by the Court of Criminal Appeals and then the Tennessee Supreme Court. This process is very time consuming and expensive; so much so that some people have argued that the death penalty costs too much to enforce.
* The Tennessee Supreme Court normally hears cases in one of three cities (Nashville, Knoxville and Jackson), but it isn’t required to do that. In fact, through a program called SCALES, the Tennessee Supreme Court occasionally hears cases in front of high school students in other parts of the state.
* The only part of this court system that is spelled out in the Tennessee Constitution is the five-member Tennessee Supreme Court. The rest of it — the general sessions judges and the Court of Appeals and all the rest — is laid out in Tennessee state law, which can be changed by the legislature. The legislature tweaks the judicial structure all the time by doing things like adding new judges to judicial districts. The legislature also gets to decide how much judges earn in salary. These types of legal changes are normally of little interest to ordinary taxpayers. But you can imagine how closely such changes are monitored by judges!
Finally, a word about how a person becomes a judge in the first place:
All General Sessions, Chancery, Criminal and Circuit judges are elected to eight-year terms by popular vote within their jurisdiction. Those elections were all held in 2006 and they will be held again in 2014.
Appellate judges and Supreme Court justices are appointed by the governor. Once a judge is serving, however, they are retained or rejected on a “yes-no” vote. What this means is that appellate judges and Supreme Court justices are rarely voted out. But it has been known to happen; in 1996 a justice was removed from the high court because of an unpopular decision in a death penalty case.