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Shelby County Government: Courts and Judges

The Court System

There are two levels of courts- the state level and the county level. The state level courts include the Supreme Court and the two appellate courts (Civil and Criminal). The county level courts include the Circuit, Chancery, Criminal, General Sessions Civil, General Sessions Criminal, and Probate Courts. If there is a vacancy at the state level, the governor appoints a replacement. If there is a vacancy at the county level, the county commission appoints a replacement.

County Courts

Circuit Court judges hear a variety of civil cases, including auto accidents, divorce, minor settlements, personal injury, worker's compensation, medical malpractice, wrongful death, and appeals from lower courts, just to name a few. These cases generally involve monetary claims. Circuit court judges have the power to hear whatever type of case comes up within the geographical area over which their courts' power extends- in this case Shelby County, the 30th Judicial District.

Chancery Court judges hear cases of an equitable nature (i.e., of a non-monetary nature), such as actions between partners, concerning a breach of contract, the enforcement of liens, actions resulting from assigning property to someone (trusts), or actions resulting from fraud, etc.  Depending on the state law, Chancery Court can also have official power with Circuit Court to hear other types of actions; for example adoptions, delinquent tax sales, cases where the person under arrest is required to be brought before a judge (i.e., habeas corpus cases), and others.

Criminal Court judges hear cases involving assault, burglary/theft, drugs, DUI, homicide, robbery, and other such criminal acts. The 30th Judicial District (i.e., Shelby County) averages about 28,000 court filings and dispositions per year. Criminal Court is a trial court and court of appeals for the county level General Sessions Criminal courts. 

Probate Court judges hear cases involving wills and estates, conservatorship, corrections to birth certificates, guardianships, judicial hospitalizations, name changes, and passports.

General Sessions Courts​ are divided into civil and criminal courts. The general sessions civil court handles civil cases with claims up to $25,000. General Sessions Civil Court judges hear cases that include evictions, actions to recover personal property, emergency mental commitments, denial petitions for handgun permits, and the drug dealer eviction program. Alternatively, cases in General Sessions Criminal Court consist of misdemeanors, preliminary hearings on felonies, and traffic and environmental cases.

General Sessions Criminal Court additionally has two special court divisions (8 and 14), which include Drug Court and Environmental Court, respectively. The Shelby County Drug Court is an alternative program that targets nonviolent adult offenders with drug-related criminal charges. The Environmental Court deals with code violations, properties that are health hazards or public nuisances, and other types of health and environmental violations. 

Juvenile Court ​has original, exclusive jurisdiction over cases involving minors. Juvenile Court judges handle delinquency cases, child custody and support cases, allegations of parental abuse and neglect, juvenile emancipation petitions, and related matters.

Municipal Courts may only try cases within its geographical territory and considered by the state as minor offenses or misdemeanors- such as eviction, parking violations, traffic arraignment, vandalism, trespassing, and small claims cases.

Tennessee State Courts

The Supreme Court, Appellate Court, and Trial Court judges that serve at the state level are initially appointed by the governor for an eight year term. At the end of the term, the retention of one's judicial seat is subject to a public vote by the citizens of the state, also known as a Public Retention Vote. If the public votes to retain the judge, the judge keeps his/her judicial position. If the public votes not to retain the judge, the seat is vacated and the governor is free to appoint a replacement.

The Tennessee Supreme Court is the state's highest court and the court of last resort. the Supreme Court justices may accept appeals of civil and criminal cases from lower state courts. They also interpret the laws and constitutions of Tennessee. They may also assume jurisdiction over undecided cases in the Court of Appeals or Court of Criminal Appeals when there is special need for an expedited decision.

The Court of Appeals hears appeals in civil cases from trial courts and certain state boards and commissions. The court has 12 members who sit in panels of three. The panels meet monthly in Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville. When necessary, the court may meet in alternate locations. All decisions made by the Court of Appeals may be appealed, by permission, to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Court of Appeals hearings do not include witnesses, juries, or testimonies. Instead, attorneys present oral and written arguments.

The Court of Criminal Appeals ​hears trial court appeals in felony and misdemeanor cases, as well as post-conviction petitions. The judges also meet monthly in Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville. When necessary, the court may meet in alternate locations. ​Decisions rendered by the Criminal Appeals Court may be appealed to the state Supreme Court by permission, except in capital cases, which are appealed automatically. No witnesses, juries, or testimonies are present here either, and attorneys present written and oral arguments.

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