PRIOR TO 1870
For Tennessee's first hundred years, Justices of the Peace were the foundation of the state's legal system. These men, often without legal training, served the citizens in their counties by resolving minor disputes, performing marriages, and serving on the quarterly court. They saved both time and expense by resolving issues without formal court proceedings. The regular courts changed and evolved through the years, but the Justice of the Peace remained the first source of help for citizens with legal problems.
The Watauga Association formed the first court in what is now Tennessee, in 1772. The five members of this court served as both legislators and judges, under the leadership of John Carter.
In 1776 North Carolina accepted responsibility for the Tennessee frontier and authorized John Carter to continue holding a court at Jonesboro for the "Washington District." When Washington County was organized in 1778, this court became the County Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions. Appeals were technically (though not practically) grantable to the Superior Court of Law and Equity of Salisbury District, 200 miles to the east.
As the new counties of Sullivan (1779) and Greene (1783) were formed, each was provided with its own Court of Common Pleas. So that appeals from the Common Pleas courts of all the new counties could be tried on their side of the mountains, North Carolina established the Washington District Superior Court of Law and Equity at Jonesboro in 1784. As the area further west became more populous the same process was followed, beginning with the formation of the Davidson County Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions in 1783. The Mero District Superior Court of Law and Equity was established at Nashville in 1788 to hear appeals for the western counties. This two-court system was generally maintained during the brief State of Franklin and territorial periods.
The 1796 Constitution of Tennessee gave Justices of the Peace sole jurisdiction over cases involving less than $50 in property or fines. It also continued the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions as an "inferior" court, and the Superior Court of Law and Equity as the "superior" and appellate court.
The Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions was comprised of a county's justices sitting in quorum. Until 1809, this group heard cases both of law and equity, and handled the business of the county. They heard law cases in which the punishment did not include loss of life or limb, and equity cases in which the amount of money or value of property involved was modest. A clerk kept minutes of the court's proceedings, and handled the court's business between sessions.
The Superior Courts of Law and Equity had sole jurisdiction over cases punishable by loss of life or limb and cases of greater dollar value. They also served as courts of appeal, for those dissatisfied a Court of Pleas decision. Many of Tennessee's leading pioneers served as Superior Court judges, including Andrew Jackson, John Overton, John McNairy, Archibald Roane and Willie Blount. The three traveling Superior Court judges heard cases in Jonesboro (Washington District), Knoxville (Hamilton District), Carthage (Winchester District), Clarksville (Robertson District), and Nashville (Mero District).
By 1809 the two-court system was overworked. To divide the case load, the legislature formed a Circuit Court, to be held in each county. The Superior Court was renamed the Supreme Court of Errors & Appeals. The division of cases among the courts varied from 1809 to 1833 as the legislature and the judges worked out the new system, sometimes disagreeing. In general the Common Pleas court heard only minor cases of both law and equity, the Circuit Court heard criminal cases and appeals from the Common Pleas court, and the Supreme Court heard larger equity cases and appeals from the other two courts.
By 1829 the existing court system was strained to its limits. Adam Huntsman reported to the Senate that year that confusion over jurisdiction, multiple appeals and a lack of legal knowledge among justices of the peace made Tennessee's judicial system "the most expensive and least efficient of any in the United States." The legal process became a major issue driving the need for a new Constitution.
When the second Constitution of Tennessee was adopted in 1834 it reorganized the judiciary by adding a system of Chancery Courts. This allowed for a clear division of cases of law (Circuit Court) and cases of equity (Chancery Court). The name of the Court of Common Pleas and Quarter Sessions was shortened simply to County Court, and its powers limited to trying non-indictable offences (such as swearing, bastardy, and gambling), and tending to estate matters, roads, and other county business. The Supreme Court reduced its circuit to three districts, meeting in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson.
The Chancery Court was originally a district court, but gradually one was established in each county. The Chancellor (judge of Chancery) weighed the evidence in equity cases and decided on a fair division among the parties. This court heard disputes over land boundaries, the partitioning of estates, disagreements between business partners, and other matters of equity or "fairness."
In contrast, the Circuit Court heard matters of law. A jury was seated to decide each case by determining whether a specific law had been violated. The cases heard by the Circuit Court included those brought by the State for crimes against the people (criminal cases), and those between individuals (civil cases). Criminal cases included murder, unlawful retailing of liquor, lewdness, public fighting and theft. Most civil cases resulted from unpaid debts. Beginning in 1842, the largest counties found it necessary to ease the work of the Circuit Court by forming separate Criminal Courts, but most counties did not divide the Circuit Court until after 1880.
The appellate function of the Supreme Court causes its records to reflect the operations of all the lower courts. The case files of this court, found among the state archives, provide an intimate look at the lives of Tennesseans through the documents filed by the parties as they dealt with issues ranging from burglary to bribery and beyond.