By Leah Roen
With the upcoming elections on August 7, I have been told repeatedly how hard it is for voters to understand the judicial races. And the concerns are twofold: who to vote for and confusion about the courts themselves. I have been out speaking to groups to inform the public about that very subject.
In Tennessee, we have separate courts that overlap somewhat. Historically, other states had this same division but later merged such courts, but four states continue to have both chancery and circuit, Tennessee being one of those states.
Judges in Chancery Courts are, therefore, properly referred to as chancellors, although it is my belief that such chancellors are not offended if one mistakenly refers to them as judges as well when, in fact, their essential role is the same. The difference has to do with the jurisdiction or types of cases that chancery entertains that circuit does not. Chancery and circuit courts have overlapping jurisdiction for divorces, child custody, child support matters related to such divorces and many civil lawsuits such as personal injury cases.
Circuit court began hearing adoption cases some years ago, but while I and other attorneys handle adoptions, I believe most of us continue to file such matters exclusively in chancery. The same is true for birth mother surrenders.
Chancery courts hear questions of equity exclusively. Such cases encompass questions of law without asking for money damages. This might include lawsuits asking the court to make a legal determination about an issue brought by the citizenry of Memphis perhaps rather than asking for an award of money.
There are nine divisions of Circuit Court and three divisions of Chancery. I have also been asked for the differences among the individual divisions within each. There is no difference between the divisions. When a lawsuit is filed, the clerk’s office determines in which division the case will be set, and such cases will remain in that division forever unless there is some reason to move it, such as a judge or chancellor finding a conflict that would require a case be transferred. There are a few other times when a case may be transferred.
Other candidates seen on the ballot will include those running for General Sessions Court. This court has fourteen divisions with the first six being in the civil division. This court would hear all civil matters with a jurisdictional limitation of $25,000. So if there were a personal injury case or car repair matter with a demand of up to $25,000.00, General Sessions would most likely be the court where you would want to file your case. The advantage to general sessions courts is that cases are usually tried or settled quickly. While the court will entertain pleadings, meaning written documents such as motions and discovery requests, it generally doesn’t. Most offers of proof are in the form of witnesses and supporting documents produced during a trial. Trials come up sooner and are resolved many times in less than an hour. Other matters heard by General Sessions Civil include evictions and collections. Lastly, you are more likely to see pro se litigants, meaning people representing themselves without the assistance of an attorney, in General Sessions than other courts.
General Sessions Criminal is located downstairs at 201 Poplar. These courts hear misdemeanors, meaning crimes punishable by less than one year of incarceration. But you will also find that some of these courts do in fact vary between the divisions. For instance, division 7, has what is called the Veterans Court. The purpose of such court is to provide assistance to military veterans who are charged with a crime. The court provides mentors, veterans who volunteer to help the defendant to successfully complete the court’s requirements by providing needed resource information and personal support.
In division 8 you will find the Drug Court,” wherein defendants opt to participate in a 12 month program that addresses the underlying issues of addiction with the goal of managing the underlying problem and avoiding further criminal activity. Founded in 1997, the Shelby County Drug Court is an alternative program that targets non-violent adult offenders with drug-related criminal charges.
In division 14, in addition to the court hearing county traffic matters, is located the Environmental Court. Common matters heard here include criminal littering and waterway violations. The Court is unique among the general sessions courts in having dual civil and criminal jurisdiction wherein suits are brought under the state’s public nuisance code. The court contends with housing where drug deals take place and strip clubs with prostitution and drug sales.
Criminal courts address felonies, which are crimes that carry a potential sentence greater than one year. There are ten divisions in Shelby County. The court is located upstairs at 201 Poplar Avenue.
Shelby County has a separate Probate Court, which consists of two divisions. Matters heard by the Probate Court include will contests, name changes, conservatorships, guardianships, and judicial hospitalizations. The court also accepts applications for passports. Probate, like General Sessions Civil are both located on the lower level of 140 Adams. The Circuit Courts are also located at 140 Adams on the second and third floors, with the Chancery Courts all located on the third floor.
Leah Roen is a judicial candidate for Circuit Court Division 1 and has practiced law in Shelby County for almost 25 years. She is licensed in Tennessee and Florida and serves on the Disciplinary Panel for the Tennessee Board of Professional Responsibility, which oversees attorneys. You can find out more about Leah on her website: www.leahroenforjudge.com.