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.
DETAILED KNOX COUNTY COURT DESCRIPTIONS
KNOX COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT – DIVISIONS I, II, AND III
Circuit Courts in the State of Tennessee are courts of general jurisdiction, meaning the circuit court of a particular county has jurisdiction, "in all cases where the jurisdiction is not conferred upon another tribunal." Refer to Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-10-101. While Tennessee consists of ninety-five (95) different counties, and each county has its own court house or justice center, the legislature has divided the state into only thirty-one (31) different judicial districts. It is therefore common for contiguous counties which are less populated to be grouped together in a single judicial district in which a judge rotates from county to county during set times of the year.
As a result of the population of Knox County, it encompasses an entire Judicial District, which is the Sixth Judicial District. The Sixth Judicial District has ten courts of record, with Divisions I, II, and III serving as its circuit courts of general jurisdiction. Judges of these divisions hear civil cases originally filed with the Circuit Court as well as appeals of civil decisions from Knox County's General Sessions Courts. The jurisdiction of these divisions often overlaps that of Knox County's Chancery Courts as well as Knox County's domestic relations court, Division IV. However, it is more common for matters involving equity and domestic relations to be filed either in one of the Chancery Courts or Circuit Court Division IV.
Perhaps the most prominent feature which distinguishes the jurisdictions of Circuit Court and Chancery Court is the fact that causes of action which involve "unliquidated damages for injuries to person or character" can only be brought in a Circuit Court. Refer to Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-102. The term "unliquidated damages" typically refers to money damages sought in an action which are uncertain in amount, and which cannot be fixed by a mere mathematical calculation from information in the case. Perhaps the most well-known types of cases which involve unliquidated damages are personal injury actions.
Circuit Court Divisions I, II and III are located on the east side of the main floor of the City-County Building on Main Street in downtown Knoxville.
Knox County Fourth Circuit Court
The Fourth Circuit Court of Knox County was established in 1965 by the Tennessee Legislature, primarily to hear matters involving divorce. While the law creating Fourth Circuit Court gives it the same jurisdiction to hear matters as the other three divisions of circuit court, it generally is referred to as the Domestic Relations Court. Cases involving divorce or legal separation are heard by Fourth Circuit Court together with issues of custody and support that result from a divorce or legal separation. This Court also hears post-divorce issues involving enforcement or modification of divorce decrees and parenting plans. Additionally, Petitions for Orders of Protection are heard by this court on a regular basis along with enforcement and compliance issues associated with the granting of orders of protection. Also, appeals from Juvenile Court are heard by the Fourth Circuit Court. The Judge appoints a magistrate to conduct hearings and make Findings and Recommendations to assist the Court on issues of child support. The Fourth Circuit Court Judge is an elected state judge serving eight year terms. The Fourth Circuit Court is located on the main floor of the City-County Building on Main Street in downtown Knoxville.
Knox County Chancery Court
Tennessee Chancery courts hear equity cases, which will often involve money damage claims but also often involve specialized relief other than money damages. Chancery courts issue injunctions, enforce trusts, grant specific performance of contracts, render declaratory judgments, hear lien lawsuits, hear annexation cases and discrimination claims, conduct accountings and corporate dissolutions, interpret and reform documents, relieve against fraud and mistake, order sales of real estate and other property, and determine various complex property matters. With some exceptions, these matters are not generally heard by juries, which are not well suited to try many of them since complex forms of relief, other than granting money damages, may have to be fashioned. Chancery also has the services of the clerk and master to perform complicated fact finding and accounting functions when the need arises.
Less than one percent of the cases heard in Knox County Chancery Court involve juries. When jury trials are conducted in chancery court, they are conducted in a very similar manner to that which might be seen in circuit court. However, there are some key differences. In circuit courts, where an award of damages is the primary relief, the jury, absent stipulation, is more likely to try all issues. In contrast, once the facts of a case are determined in chancery court, the case may depend upon a controlling question of law. In this situation, the jury determines the facts of the case and the chancellor fashions the appropriate relief.
Knox County Chancery Court also has jurisdiction over decedents' estates. These are commonly referred to as probate cases. Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-16-201, the clerk and master in Knox County initially hears most probate matters as a master under Rule 53 of the Tennessee Rules of Civil Procedure. After the hearing, the clerk and master will create a summary of his findings in what is referred to as a master's report. This report is sent to the chancellor for confirmation, modification or rejection. For the framework of Knox County Chancery Court for probate cases, please refer to Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-16-201 and Rule 17 of the Rules of Chancery Court. Please note the clerk and master in Knox County hears fee applications only by special reference.
Knox County Criminal Courts
The Criminal Courts handle both Felony & Misdemeanor cases. Cases are scheduled in Criminal Court after an Indictment is issued by the Grand Jury after the case has been bound over from the Sessions Court, or after an original Presentment or Information is issued. Criminal Courts can hold trials with juries. However, a defendant can waive his/her right to a jury trial and instead, let the Criminal Court Judge hear the case and make the decision. Additionally, Criminal Court judges have the authority to issue search warrants, and they have exclusive authority to issue judicial subpoenas and search warrants in cases involving the sexual exploitation of children and the use of wiretaps. Criminal Court judges may also be tasked with issue nuisance seizures where property is used in the commission of criminal activities. In the absence of a plea agreement, criminal judges sentence defendants in accordance with the TN Sentencing Guidelines.
Knox County has three divisions of Criminal Court. Each division operates five days a week. Each of the divisions is equal to the others and hears a variety of cases. There is no functional difference between each of the Criminal Court Divisions. Unlike Sessions Court, the judges in Criminal Court do not rotate to the other divisions but instead stay in one court continually.
Criminal Court Div. I
Criminal Court Div. II
Criminal Court Div. III
Knox County Sessions Court
Sessions Courts have authority to issue judgments for misdemeanor criminal cases and traffic offenses. Sessions Courts do not have the authority to issue judgments on felony cases. They have authority to hold preliminary hearings on felony and misdemeanor cases to determine if there is sufficient cause for the case to be bound over to the Grand Jury. There are no jury trials in Sessions Courts.
Sessions Courts operate five days a week. The judges in Sessions Court rotate on a five-week schedule, serving one week at a time in each of the Sessions Courts. Sessions court judges also have authority to issue search warrants that may involve the searches of houses, phones, computers, cars, etc. Search warrants in all cases are obtained after an application is made under oath to the requesting Judge.
Sessions Court Div. I
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Hears all misdemeanor offenses (except DUI offenses). Misdemeanor offenses include crimes that have sentences that do not exceed 11 months and 29 days. This includes but is not limited to charges like driving on a suspended license, shoplifting, assault, domestic violence, simple possession of certain drugs, child abuse, prostitution, vandalism, littering, prohibited weapons, disorderly conduct, public intoxication, trespassing, etc.
Sessions Court Div. II
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Hears all DUI offenses (including misdemeanor and felony DUI offenses) and vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, and habitual motor vehicle offender offenses.
Sessions Court Div. III
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All felony offenses (except felony evading arrest, vehicular assault, vehicular homicide, HMVO and DUI 4th/felony or subsequent offenses). Felony offenses include crimes where the sentences are for one (1) year or greater. This includes but is not limited to charges like aggravated assault, rape, murder, kidnapping, arson, mfg, sale, or delivery of certain drugs, reckless endangerment, theft, domestic violence, aggravated child abuse, burglary, robbery, etc.
Sessions Court Div. IV
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Conducts arraignments for all persons who have been released from custody without seeing a judge or magistrate. Defendants must report to this court on the date and time specified by the release officer. Defendants are informed of the charges against them, have the opportunity to hire a lawyer or apply for an appointed lawyer, and their cases are set for hearing in the appropriate sessions court. This Court hears environmental cases as well as county ordinances and traffic dockets.
Sessions Court Div. V
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General Sessions Court, Civil Division, is a place where small disputes can be settled without formal courtroom procedures. Many cases in Civil Sessions Court do not require an attorney. Before you decide to represent yourself, you must determine how complicated your case is and if you feel confident that you can explain it to the judge.
General Sessions Court is a court of limited and special jurisdiction. The General Sessions Court's civil jurisdiction includes civil lawsuits seeking recovery for up to $25,000.00. Actions to Recover Personal Property are not limited to this jurisdictional amount unless an alternative money judgment is sought. Where an alternative money judgment is sought, only an amount up to $25,000.00 may be awarded. The General Sessions Court also has original and unlimited jurisdiction over forcible entry and detainer warrants involving landlord-tenant disputes and non-payment of rent. Actions seeking enforcement of contracts as well as damages to person and property can be heard in the General Sessions Court, but are also limited to an award of up to $25,000.00.
Knox County Juvenile Court
Knox County Juvenile Court was created by the Tennessee Legislature in 1913. It hears two types of cases involving minor children, unruly and delinquent cases and dependent and neglected cases. Unruly and delinquent cases involve minors who commit crimes or who are unable to be controlled by a parent or legal guardian. Dependent and neglect cases involve minors who are at risk of harm because they are not being properly cared for by their parent or legal guardian. Termination of parental rights cases are heard by Juvenile Court. In addition, child support, custody, visitation and paternity issues involving children of unwed parents are addressed by this court. Child support issues are heard in courtrooms at the Old Knox County Courthouse on Main Street in downtown Knoxville by the Child Support Division. Currently, there are seven magistrates appointed by the Juvenile Court Judge that conduct hearings and make Findings and Recommendations to assist the Judge in making his rulings. The Juvenile Court Judge is a Knox County Official and is elected to office. The Juvenile Court facility is located on Division Street and is undergoing an expansion to consolidate all of its operations including the Child Support Division at that location.