Tennessee Court Records
How Does the Tennessee Circuit Court Work?
The Tennessee circuit courts are one of four trial courts with general jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases in Tennessee. The courts also receive appeals from the lower City, Juvenile, Municipal, and General Session courts and share this jurisdiction with Chancery Courts.
Typically, most criminal and civil cases beyond the limited jurisdiction of the lower courts begin here, including:
- Criminal offenses (except in districts with dedicated criminal courts)
- Torts (no maximum value)
- Contract disputes (no maximum value)
- Probate & real estate cases (except in districts with dedicated probate courts)
- Domestic relations cases
A typical case in a circuit court begins when a plaintiff files a civil complaint or the state files criminal charges against a suspect. Depending on the type of case, the litigants go through rules of procedure specific to that case, i.e., Tennessee Rule of Civil Procedure and Tennessee Rule of Criminal Procedure. If the parties involved fail to arrive at a plea bargain or settlement agreement, the court will hold a jury trial for the case and the presiding judge declares a verdict.
Either party may file an appeal to the Tennessee Court of Appeals in a civil case. However, only the defendant in a criminal case may appeal the circuit court’s verdict to the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals or the Supreme Court. This limitation is a constitutional provision to protect individuals from two trials/punishments for the same crime, i.e., double jeopardy.
Although Tennessee circuit courts account for nearly 41% of the state judiciary, it only handles 17% of the statewide caseload. According to statistical reports, Tennessee circuit courts process about 45,000 cases annually. Generally, the plaintiff must file a civil or criminal lawsuit within the statute of limitations, which varies with the offense. Likewise, the time until adjudication of a case varies with the complexity of the case and the court’s caseload. Some cases, such as tort liability, may take as fast as ninety days to resolve, while product liability claims take several months. Also, while individuals involved in a criminal trial have a right to a speedy trial, it may take anywhere between thirty (30) days to one hundred (100) days for a criminal case to proceed from arrest to trial. Thus, lawsuits tend to end in a plea bargain or settlement agreement to save the judiciary and the litigants time and resources.
Tennessee’s 95 counties comprise 31 judicial districts. Each district has at least one circuit court handling the criminal and civil cases from one or more counties. Circuit court judges come into office following a partisan election—although the legislature may mandate a non-partisan election for circuit court judges. The winner of the election shall hold office for eight (8) years, after which the state conducts another election. The incumbent judge may contest in the new election if he/she so wishes.
In any way, a judgeship candidate must be admitted into the state bar and authorized to practice law in Tennessee. Furthermore, he/she must be at least thirty (30) years old and have lived in the state for five (5) years. In addition to these constitutional and statutory requirements, a candidate for circuit court judgeship must have resided in the district for at least one (1) year before the election (Tenn. Const., Art. VI, Sec. 4; Tenn. Code. Ann. § 16–4–102; Tenn. Code. Ann. § 16–5–102). The Supreme Court selects a chief judge who functions as the administrative head of each judicial district for one (1) year.
At present, there are 85 circuit court judges in Tennessee. All judges must follow the Tennessee Code of Judicial Conduct and the Tennessee Rules of Professional Conduct. The law makes provisions for removing an erring judge under certain circumstances apart from misconduct, e.g., incapacitation.
If a judge is removed, incapacitated, or dies in office, the Trial Court Vacancy Commission shall recommend eligible nominees to the governor. The nomination follows a systematic process of an announcement, solicitation of applicants, public hearings, and interviews. Finally, the Commission shall select and present three finalists to the governor, who appoints one of these nominees to the vacant office. The acting judge shall perform the office’s duties until the term is over, after which he/she may contest in partisan elections.
Meanwhile, active Tennessee trial court judges may leave office in one of two ways:
- Removal: Following a recommendation by the court or the Board of Judicial Authority, the legislature shall convene for a General Assembly where two-thirds of each house is necessary to remove a judge. Removal proceedings typically following a disciplinary action or investigation into incapacitation Tenn. Code Ann. § 17–5–302. The aggrieved judge may, however, appeal the removal to the Supreme Court.
- Impeachment and Conviction: Here, an impeachment action against a serving judge must garner a two-thirds vote of the house of representatives. After that, conviction by a two-thirds vote of the Senate is necessary.
Apart from these, a serving judge may announce his/her retirement or resignation from office. Replacement shall follow established protocol.
Interested persons who wish to obtain circuit court records must contact the official custodian of the court record. This custodian is the Clerk of Court in the county where the plaintiff filed the case. Court records are generally considered public records under the Tennessee Public Records Act, except when the record contains sensitive or confidential information. In such cases, a statutory provision or court order shall direct the Clerk to sequester the record from public perusal. Sealed court records are still available under limited circumstances and to authorized entities with vested interests in the case documents.
Either way, a requester who wishes to obtain Tennessee circuit court records must provide the necessary details to facilitate a search. He/she must also cover the costs of searching, reproducing, and certifying physical copies of requested records. The general means of access is in person or by mail request. Interested persons may use the court directory to find the location and contact information of the record custodian in a circuit court. The Tennessee judiciary does not maintain a central repository for online access to public court records, but interested persons may obtain archived court records from the State Library and Archives.