Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
The Tennessee court system is divided into four levels: the Tennessee Supreme Court, Intermediate Appellate Courts, Trial Courts, and Courts of Limited Jurisdiction.
The Intermediate Appellate Courts include the Court of Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals. Both the Court of Appeals and the Court of Criminal Appeals consist of twelve judges who decide cases in panels of three. Tenn. Ann. Code §§ 16-4-102(a) & 16-4-113.
Tennessee’s 95 counties have been divided into 31 judicial districts (with a 32nd becoming effective on September 1, 2022). Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-2-506. Each judicial district contains both a Circuit and Chancery Court. Id. Circuit Courts are courts of general jurisdiction, hearing both civil and criminal matters (as well as appeals from certain Courts of Limited Jurisdiction), while Chancery Courts are courts of equity. The largest thirteen Tennessee counties (including the counties in which Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga are located) have established Criminal Courts separate from their Circuit Courts, and both Shelby County (Memphis) and Davidson County (Nashville) have also established separate Probate Courts. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-2-506.
The Courts of Limited Jurisdiction include General Sessions Courts (also divided between civil and criminal jurisdiction in the largest counties), Juvenile Courts, and Municipal Courts (sometimes referred to as city court).
Basis of Jurisdiction
The Tennessee Supreme Court is the highest court in Tennessee and consists of five justices. It hears appeals of both civil and criminal cases from the Intermediate Appellate Courts and interprets the laws and constitutions of Tennessee and the United States. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-3-201(a). It also has jurisdiction over all interlocutory appeals arising out of matters in which the court has exclusive jurisdiction. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-3-201(c).
The Court of Appeals hears appeals in civil cases from Tennessee’s trial courts and state agencies. It has jurisdiction over all civil cases except workers’ compensation cases and certain cases involving abortions performed on minors. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-4-108(a)(1). The Court of Appeals may also exercise appellate jurisdiction over civil or criminal contempt cases arising out of a civil matter. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-4-108(b).
The Circuit and Chancery Courts are Tennessee’s primary trial courts, but they sometimes hear appeals from cases in Courts of Limited Jurisdiction, as provided by statute. The Circuit Courts are courts of general jurisdiction in Tennessee. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-10-101. The Chancery Courts, which are courts of equity, have concurrent jurisdiction over all civil causes triable in Circuit Courts except those cases seeking unliquidated damages. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-102(a). The Chancery Courts also have exclusive original jurisdiction over: cases involving debts greater than $50 (Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-103), proceedings in aid of a creditor (Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-104), lawsuits filed by the attorney general on behalf of the State of Tennessee against corporations (Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-105), boundary line disputes (Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-106(a)), and lawsuits on foreign judgments (Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-107). The Chancery Court has concurrent jurisdiction with tribunals over cases involving arbitration (Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-112) including county courts over cases involving persons adjudicated incompetent and their estate and estates of infants (Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 16-11-108 & 109).
Jurisdiction of General Sessions Courts varies by county, but these courts generally have jurisdiction to hear civil cases with claims up to $25,000 as well as criminal matters. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-501(d). Of the 98 Juvenile Courts, 81 are General Sessions Courts with concurrent jurisdiction over juvenile matters, with only the largest counties having formally established separate General Sessions and Juvenile Courts. Juvenile Courts and General Sessions Courts with juvenile jurisdiction have exclusive original jurisdiction over minors alleged to be delinquent, unruly, or dependent and neglected. Tenn. Code Ann. § 137-1-103(a)(1).
The Tennessee Business Court Docket Pilot Project was established by Supreme Court order in 2015 and extended in 2017. The specialized court docket has developed a body of corporate and commercial jurisprudence covering business topics ranging from contract interpretation to corporate e-discovery to business organization to trade secrets and more.
Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 31 authorizes mediation by court order or by consent of the parties in any “eligible civil matter.” Eligible civil actions include “any civil action filed in a Court in which the court has continuing jurisdiction, except civil commitments, adoption proceedings, habeas corpus and extraordinary writs, juvenile delinquency, or dependency and neglect cases.” Id. Local Rules in some Circuit and Chancery Courts in Tennessee may mandate mediation prior to trial, at least in certain circumstances, and many individual Circuit and Chancery Court judges require the parties to engage in pre-trial mediation as a matter of practice.
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