Civics 101: Makeup of local courts varies by district in Tenn.

J. H. Osborne • Apr 8, 2019 at 3:25 PM

Voters in Tennessee have the opportunity to cast a ballot in judicial races for local courts. 

Tennessee’s 95 counties are divided into 31 judicial districts. Within each district are circuit courts and chancery courts, as provided by the state constitution. Some districts also have legislatively established criminal courts and probate courts. Judges of these courts are elected to eight-year terms.


Sullivan County alone is District 2, while District 1 includes Johnson, Carter, Unicoi and Washington counties. Hancock, Hawkins, Hamblen and Greene counties make up District 3.


Circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction in Tennessee. Circuit court judges hear civil and criminal cases and appeals of decisions from juvenile, municipal, and general sessions courts. The jurisdiction of circuit courts often overlaps that of the chancery courts. Criminal cases are tried in circuit court except in districts with separate criminal courts established by the General Assembly.


Chancery courts are courts of equity that are based on the English system in which the chancellor acted as the “king’s conscience.” A chancellor, the judge who presides over chancery courts, may modify the application of strict legal rules and adapt relief to the circumstances of individual cases. Chancery courts handle a variety of issues including lawsuits, contract disputes, application for injunctions and name changes. A number of matters, such as divorces, adoptions, and workers’ compensation, can be heard in either chancery or circuit court.


Criminal courts were established by the legislature to relieve circuit courts in areas with heavy caseloads. In addition to having jurisdiction over criminal cases, criminal court judges hear misdemeanor appeals from lower courts. In districts without criminal courts, criminal cases are handled at the trial level by circuit court judges.


Probate courts were created by the legislature and given jurisdiction over probate of wills and administration of estates. Probate judges also handle conservatorships and guardianships.


General sessions court jurisdiction varies from county to county based on state laws and private acts. Every county is served by this court of limited jurisdiction, which hears both civil and criminal cases.

Civil jurisdiction is restricted to specific monetary limits and types of actions. Criminal jurisdiction is limited to preliminary hearings in felony cases and misdemeanor trials in which a defendant waives the right to a grand jury investigation and trial by jury in circuit or criminal court.

General sessions judges also serve as juvenile judges except in counties in which the legislature has established separate juvenile courts. General sessions judges are elected to eight-year terms.

Source: Tennessee State Courts