Courts in Shelby County

by David C. Childe, Spring 2008


The United States District Court is a trial court of general jurisdiction that hears both civil and criminal cases that involve either a federal issue or involve parties from different states [(or a foreign country (alienage)] with an amount in controversy exceeding seventy-five thousand dollars ($75,000). A federal issue can fall under only three categories: 1) the United States constitution, 2) federal law or treaty, or 3) the United States is a party to the lawsuit. The Court decides cases based on legal principles of both law and equity. 28 U.S.C. § 1330-1332, 28App. U.S.C. § Rule 2.

The majority of a district court’s caseload is civil in nature. Roughly one-third arise from diversity of citizenship while the remainder are federal issues. Of these cases, the leading category filed in 2006 was prisoner petitions (21%), followed by product liability torts (19%), civil rights cases (13%) contract actions (12%), other torts (6%), and actions under labor law (6%). 18 U.S.C. § 3626, 15 U.S.C. § 2064, 28 U.S.C. § 1343, 15 U.S.C. § 2310, 29 U.S.C. § 216.  (Statistics from


In many areas of civil law a litigant can find parallel laws on both the federal and state books, so he has a choice where to file the petition for relief. Yet some matters can only be adjudicated in federal courts, which include but are not limited to: bankruptcy, intellectual property (e.g. patents, copyrights, trademarks) admiralty, federal taxation, and any suit involving international relations. Although limited jurisdiction courts exist for certain tax and international relations matters, district courts are still authorized to hear cases in these categories. 28 U.S.C. § 1333-1334, 28 U.S.C. § 1338, 28 U.S.C. § 1340, 28 U.S.C. § 1351, 28 U.S.C. § 1364, 28 U.S.C. § 1368.




United States bankruptcy courts were authorized by an act of Congress in 1979 to serve as limited jurisdiction components of the district courts. The district courts are conferred with subject matter jurisdiction over bankruptcy matters [28 U.S.C. § 1334(a)]; nonetheless, 28 U.S.C. § 151 and 28 U.S.C. § 157 grant the bankruptcy court authority to hear any Title 11-related matter referred by the district court. As a practical matter, the system has evolved to where most bankruptcy cases now originate in the dedicated bankruptcy court unit.




Chancery Courts, as a general rule, are authorized to apply principles of equity as opposed to principles of law. They are based on the English system in which the chancellor acted as the king’s conscience, tailoring the application of general legal principles to better suit individual cases. Used in the modern context, the distinction between “equity” and “law” is based on the remedies provided. An equitable remedy consists of injunctions or decrees that order a party to either act or refrain from acting in a certain manner. A legal remedy consists of strictly monetary damages (both compensatory and punitive).


While forty-seven of the fifty states have either dissolved their Chancery Courts or merged them into the Circuit Courts, Tennessee stubbornly clings to a separate Chancery Court system; nonetheless, according to Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-102 (2008), these Chancery Courts maintain concurrent jurisdiction with Circuit Courts for “all cases of civil action” outside of most tort actions. So a Chancery Court can actually hear a broader array of cases than Circuit Court by virtue of its concurrent jurisdiction on most civil cases as well as the array of “equity” cases where it enjoys exclusive jurisdiction.


The Tennessee General Assembly has granted original jurisdiction to the Chancery Courts with respect to subject matter deemed “properly and rightfully incident to a court of equity” as long as the amount in dispute exceeds fifty dollars ($50.00). Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-101 (2008), Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-103 (2008). Yet these statutes do not provide specifics as to what subject matter falls under this “equity” umbrella.  Commonly litigated areas under the equity classification include but are not limited to: probate, guardianships, contracts, frauds, trusts, liens, partnerships, and anything injunction-related.


Although Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-101 (2008) would appear to give the Chancery Court blanket jurisdiction over matters relevant for a court of equity, the legislature nonetheless saw fit to delineate specific actions that may or may not normally be the province of a Chancery Court. These actions cannot be readily grouped under general categories, and range from the highly consequential to the seemingly arcane. The statutes grant jurisdiction for any action by the state against corporations [Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-105 (2008)]; jurisdiction is also granted over the persons and estates of idiots. Interestingly, the relevant statutes explicitly cover jurisdiction over key equity areas such as divorce, probate, and contract proceedings [Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-110 (2008), Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-111 (2008), Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-115 (2008)], yet do not mention other seemingly important equity issues such as cases involving injunctions or liens.


In addition to not defining exactly what “cases of an equitable nature” are, the statutes raise a number of questions regarding Chancery Court jurisdiction: If the Chancery Court indeed has “exclusive” jurisdiction over all equitable matters over $50, then why does concurrent jurisdiction exist with the Circuit Court on so many equity-type issues?  Why does concurrent jurisdiction exist with the Circuit Court on almost all non-equity-related civil actions except torts? Why do the statutes bother to spell-out a handful of equity-related actions under the Chancery Court’s jurisdiction that would cleanly fall under the overall equity mandate of the court? Why is there a need for a separate probate court in Shelby County? One can easily see why reformers argue for the melding of the Chancery and Circuit courts in Tennessee.




In Tennessee, the Circuit Court is conferred with judicial power by Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-1-101 and is combined with the criminal courts under the authority of Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-1-102. It is a court of general jurisdiction, meaning that it has authority in all cases in which jurisdiction is not explicitly granted to another court. Because of the high volume of cases, Shelby County has a separate Criminal Court with original jurisdiction as authorized by Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-1-107. Accordingly, the Shelby County Circuit Court hears only civil matters. Concurrent jurisdiction exists with the Chancery Court on almost all matters outside of torts. Even though Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-11-101 defines the Chancery Court as a “court of equity”, equitable remedies (e.g. injunctions, specific performance) are nonetheless granted by the circuit court and the chancery court does conduct jury trials.


As a practical matter, the Shelby County Circuit Court hears all major civil cases with the exception of certain juvenile and probate matters, which are handled by dedicated courts with a more limited effective jurisdiction. (Juvenile Court is a court of limited jurisdiction; Probate court is technically a court of general jurisdiction but does not truly operate in that capacity). Under the heading of fees, Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-21-41(b)(c) provides an overview of common actions:  Contract-related suits, torts (personal injury, property damage, medical malpractice, wrongful death), employment discrimination suits, civil rights suits, tax disputes, special remedies, property disputes, divorce, adoption, legitimation, paternity, other domestic relations matters, and probate matters. The Circuit Court’s jurisdiction over certain arcane matters and certain concurrent jurisdiction issues not mentioned above is covered in Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-10-103-113.




The Tennessee legislature created General Sessions Courts in 1960 [Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-101 (2008)] to replace the archaic justice of the peace system.  These Courts of limited jurisdiction are locally rather than state-funded and their authority often derives from locally sponsored private acts of the legislature [Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-501(c)(1,2) (2008)] rather than from statutes. In addition, General Sessions Courts have become primary revenue sources for county government. Consequently, their degree of autonomy is high and comparisons across the system often prove unwieldy. For example, in one county General Sessions Court has jurisdiction for small claims, juvenile, environmental, and domestic relations, probate, and mental health cases. At the other end of the spectrum, in another county the General Sessions Court handles no civil matters at all. Statutes in themselves paint only an incomplete picture of a General Sessions Court’s jurisdiction and operations. For an exhaustive analysis, the researcher would have to comb through private acts, judicial rules, customs, and traditions.


Limiting the analysis to strictly statutory authority, the Shelby County General Sessions Civil Court has jurisdiction to try small claims cases up to twenty-five thousand dollars  ($25,000.00). [Tenn. Code Ann. § 15-15-501(d)(1) (2008)]. The legislature also grants the Court jurisdiction over actions to recover personal property. [Tenn. Code Ann. § 15-15-502 (2008)]. Finally, the court has jurisdiction over eviction matters, certain mental health matters, and interpleaders. [Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-501(d)(1) (2008), Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-5013 (2008), Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-731 (2008)]. The foregoing jurisdiction covers civil cases involving either law or equity. Appeals to the Circuit or Chancery Court are permitted on a de novo basis (i.e. an entirely new trial will be conducted). Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-729 (2008)].




Probate matters were once mainly the province of courts of equity (e.g. Chancery Courts). Over the last century Chancery Courts were dissolved by all but three states and the probate portions were either spun off into their own court of general jurisdiction, attached to circuit courts as a division, or completely absorbed into the circuit courts. Tennessee has ingloriously retained elements of all the foregoing modus operandi, including the retention of a complete Chancery Court system – which one would think would be fully capable of handling all probate matters autonomously. The other two states still clinging to a Chancery Court do not find it necessary to maintain a separate probate court. Yet Tennessee does. The Tennessee Supreme Court claims that Shelby County houses the state’s only probate court; however, Jefferson County’s website features a dedicated probate court as well.


The Shelby County Probate Court was authorized by private act, which may explain why it does not command a separate chapter within Title16 of the code. Without a distinct chapter, its jurisdiction is laid out neither sequentially nor clearly, so one must jump through various sections to find and assemble relevant jurisdictional material. Given that our Supreme Court categorizes Probate Court as a court of general jurisdiction (along with Circuit and Chancery), the dearth of statutory recognition is indeed surprising. Probate Court is defined as “[T]he court having jurisdiction over the estates of decedents,” according to Tenn. Code Ann. § 1-3-105(23). Tenn. Code Ann. § 34-4-109 (2008) confers “any court of record with probate jurisdiction … established by private or public act” with the power to conduct trials regarding the validity of wills. The jurisdiction runs concurrent with a chancery or circuit court. One could assume that authority for the probate court is implicit in the “private act” language of the foregoing statute. Granted, the reasoning here is a bit circular, yet the dearth of statutory material granting specific authority to the Shelby County probate court makes it so. Other estate-related matters in which the probate court is granted authority include the power to appoint a conservator [Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-3-202 (2008)], to appoint a guardian [Tenn. Code Ann. § 30-1-404 (2008)], and to oversee trust-related proceedings [Tenn. Code Ann. § 35-15-203 (2008)].
Although the foregoing definition of probate does not encompass non-estate matters, the probate court is nonetheless conferred authority on a couple of seemingly unrelated items. Tenn. Code Ann. § 33-3-603 (2008) grants a probate court the authority to institutionalize mentally ill people as long as the court is located in a county with a population over four hundred thousand (400,000) people. And the probate court, according to Tenn. Code Ann. § 29-8-101 (2008), can change names and correct errors on birth certificates.


In 1905, The Tennessee Assembly passed the Tennessee Juvenile Court Act, establishing exclusive authority over any child sixteen or under who may be defined as either “neglected” or “delinquent” or “unruly”. Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-103(a) (2008). The age has since been expanded to as old as nineteen, depending on the circumstance. Tenn Code Ann. 37-1-103(c) (2008). The legislature also grants the Court exclusive original jurisdiction for traffic offenses committed by a juvenile. Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-103(a) (2008). The Court also enjoys concurrent jurisdiction (with Probate and Chancery) for matters including but not limited to parentage, child support, and termination of parental rights. Tenn. Code Ann. § 37-1-104 (2008). At his pleasure, the judge may appoint referees who are vested with all the powers of a trial judge. § 37-1-107 (2008). Depending on the county, Juvenile Court is either a dedicated court of limited jurisdiction (Shelby county, for example) or falls under the umbrella of the General Sessions Court. Similar to Probate Court, a considerable amount of specific jurisdictional authority is granted by private rather than public act, making comparisons difficult across the system and rendering the statutes incomplete in determining the comprehensive authority for each court. Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-15-5009 (2008).

Over 60% of cases heard by juvenile courts in Tennessee fall under the delinquent or unruly categories – either illegal conduct or status offenses. Dependency/neglect (e.g. abused child or termination of parental rights) accounted for only about seven percent while parentage (which includes custody, paternity, and child support according to this classification) accounted for roughly 14%. Almost half the referrals to the court were made by law enforcement; parents accounted for only 11% and relatives another 3%. Other significant referral categories include DCS (10%), courts (9%), and schools (8%). (Statistics from the 2006 Tennessee Annual Juvenile Court Statistical Report; the statutes mentioned above incorporate the categories referenced).