Tennessee has 10 different types of courts, an unusually high number, so the judicial system might appear confusing to those encountering it for the first time. It can be helpful, however, to think of it as a four-tiered structure.
The bottom tier is made up of three courts that handle cases that don't require trials: municipal courts, general sessions courts, and juvenile and family courts. Municipal courts hear cases involving violations of municipal ordinances. General sessions courts handle smaller civil cases, misdemeanors, and criminal preliminary hearings.
The next level up are the trial courts: circuit courts, chancery courts, criminal courts, and probate courts. Circuit courts are courts of general jurisdiction, handling civil and criminal cases as well as appeals from the municipal, general sessions, and juvenile and family courts. Chancery courts handle a range of cases, including contract disputes, divorces, and adoptions. The role of the criminal courts is to relieve circuit courts in areas with heavy caseloads. Probate courts handle cases involving wills, administration of estates, and conservatorships and guardianships.
The next tier is the intermediate appellate level. Tennessee is somewhat unusual in splitting its intermediate appellate courts into a civil appellate level, the Court of Appeals, and a criminal appellate level, the Court of Criminal Appeals. Both of these courts hear appeals from lower courts, and decisions of both courts may be appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court, the fourth tier, is the state's highest court. In addition to handling appeals from the intermediate appellate courts, the court may assume jurisdiction over undecided cases in the intermediate appellate courts when there is a special need for a quick decision.
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