The structure of our court system is much like the layers of a five layer wedding cake. The bottom layer consists of the municipal or city courts. These courts usually handle traffic tickets and violations of city ordnances. Some, however, are vested with the same authority over criminal cases as the next level of courts. The next level consists of the general sessions courts. These courts are courts of general jurisdiction and handle both criminal and civil cases occurring within the counties where they are located. In some counties, these courts are also vested with the same authority as the next level of courts in domestic matters such as divorce and child custody cases. Many of these courts also handle juvenile and probate cases.
The next level consists of courts of record. These court are trial courts and are made up of circuit, criminal, chancery and juvenile courts. These courts are what most people visualize when they think of courts. Unlike the other courts, and with the exception of juvenile courts, jury trials occur in these courts of record.
The final two layers are the appellate courts. The appellate courts consist of the court of appeals, the criminal court of appeals and the Tennessee Supreme Court. No trials are held in the appellate courts. There is no evidence introduced and no testimony taken. The judges in these courts are limited to reviewing the evidence and record from the trail courts. The primary function of the appellate courts is to determine whether any mistakes were made in the trial court and if so, what should be done about it.
If the appellate court finds that a mistake was made in the trial court, there are several things the appellate court can do. The court can send the case back to the trial court for a new trial or to reconsider the case based on instructions from the appellate court. In certain cases, the appellate court can review the evidence and reach a different result than the trial court and simply change the result to what it should have been had the trial court decided it correctly.
Anyone dissatisfied with the ruling of the trial court can file an appeal and have it heard by the court of appeals. A party dissatisfied with the ruling of the court of appeals can request a review by the Tennessee Supreme Court. This is done by seeking permission to appeal to the Supreme Court. Permission is only granted in certain circumstances and is rare.
A good understanding of the court system is essential for both attorneys and for consumers of the judicial system. Additionally, it is important to know which courts in your county have jurisdiction over which type of cases.