Note: Judgepedia will be read-only from 9pm CST on February 25-March 9 while Judgepedia is merged into Ballotpedia.
Starting on March 9, all Judgepedia content will be contained on For status updates, visit

Tennessee Supreme Court

From Judgepedia
Revision as of 11:52, 19 December 2013 by Jerrick Adams (Talk | contribs)

Jump to: navigation, search

Tennessee Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   5
Founded:   1870
Location:   Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville, Tennessee
Chief:  $
Associates:  $
Judicial selection
Method:   Comm. select., Gov. appt.
Term:   8 years
Active justices

Cornelia Clark  •  Gary R. Wade  •  Sharon Lee  •  Holly Kirby  •  Jeff Bivins  •  

Seal of Tennessee.png

The Tennessee Supreme Court is the court of last resort in Tennessee. It interprets and applies Tennessee's laws and state constitution.

The court is composed of five justices who serve for renewable eight-year terms. They are appointed to the court and face a retention election at the end of each such term.

The court generally meets in Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville. Four of the five current justices on the court were appointed by one governor, Democrat Phil Bredesen.


The current justices of the court are:
JudgeTermSelected by
Justice Cornelia Clark2005-2022Gov. Phil Bredesen
Justice Gary R. Wade2006-2022Gov. Phil Bredesen
Chief justice Sharon Lee2009-2022Gov. Phil Bredesen
Justice Holly Kirby2014-2016Gov. Bill Haslam
Justice Jeff Bivins2014-2016Gov. Bill Haslam

Chief justice

The chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court is Gary R. Wade. He took over the position in September 2012 from Janice Holder, the state's first female chief justice. According to the Tennessee Constitution, the justices of the Supreme Court select the Chief Justice.


The court hears appeals of civil and criminal cases from lower state courts, such as the Tennessee Court of Appeals and the Tennessee Court of Criminal Appeals. The Supreme Court may assume jurisdiction over undecided cases in the Court of Appeals or Court of Criminal Appeals when a decision is needed on an emergency basis. The court has appellate jurisdiction in cases involving state taxes, the right to hold public office, and issues of constitutional law.

Judicial selection

Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court are selected via appointment by the Governor. The justice, after serving an eight year term, must go to a retention vote.


A qualified candidate for the Tennessee Supreme Court must meet the basic qualifications as described in the Tennessee Constitution, Article 8-18-101. The person must be at least 35 years old and have been a resident of Tennessee for at least five years. He must also be an attorney and must be licensed to practice law in the Tennessee court system.[1]

Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of state supreme court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Tennessee was given a Campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Tennessee received a score of -0.02. Based on the justices selected, Tennessee was the 23rd most liberal court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[2]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2012 201 210
2011 219 262
2010 198 224
2009 245 267
2008 226 262
2007 244 359


Notable decisions

"Tennessee Plan" litigation

Tennessee Supreme Court

The "Tennessee Plan" has been challenged in court several times. In the case of Higgins v. Dunn (1973), the Tennessee Supreme Court held that retention elections were constitutional, as the constitution did not specify what type of elections the General Assembly had to enact for electing judges. Justice Allison Humphries, in dissent, opined that the supreme court justices approving the constitutionality of the Modified Missouri Plan had, "like Esau, sold their soul for a mess of pottage" and had made the judicial branch subordinate to the legislative branch. The Plan was again challenged in the case of DeLaney v. Thompson (1998). The plaintiffs argued that the process was not an "election" in the sense envisioned by the writers of the state constitution, and that the court in Higgins v. Dunn had rendered a decision due to their interest in the subject matter of the case. DeLaney v. Thompson was appealed to the Tennessee Supreme Court, at which time the whole court was forced to recuse itself. The special Supreme Court appointed by the governor to hear this case, however, refused to rule on the constitutionality of the Plan, and instead remanded the case on a technicality.[4]

Effect of the "Tennessee Plan"

As of 2009, only one member of the Tennessee Supreme Court has ever been removed under the so-called "Tennessee Plan". Former Justice Penny White was removed in 1996 in a campaign reminiscent of that used a few years prior in California against former Chief Justice Rose Bird, and for largely the same reason: White's seeming eagerness to overturn a capital sentence based on personal opposition to the death penalty.

Holder opposes elections

Chief Justice Janice Holder said recently that she and her colleagues on the Supreme Court are unanimous in support of maintaining the state’s current system of selecting its appellate court judges. Republican leaders in the state Legislature have argued that the current "Tennessee Plan" violates the state constitution which provides, "The judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state." The Plan will be automatically repealed July 1, 2009 if lawmakers fail to renew or modify it during the session. Despite the Plan's constitutionally questionable nature, Holder states:

"This court is not in favor of partisan election in which judges are obligated to raise millions of dollars for campaigns. This court is in favor of the current principles that comprise the Tennessee Plan."[5]


Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Tennessee earned a grade of F in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[6]

History of the court

Janice HolderCornelia ClarkWilliam KochGary WadeSharon LeeTN Supreme Court judges.jpg
Tennessee Supreme Court justices, (seated) Chief Justice Janice Holder and standing (left to right) Justice Cornelia Clark, Justice William Koch, and Justices Gary Wade and Sharon Lee.

The Tennessee Constitution of 1870 requires the court of five justices to meet in Knoxville, Nashville, and Jackson to be equitable. At least one justice, but no more than two justices must be from three sections of the state. East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee were meant to represent all citizens of the state and to prevent regional bias. The original constitution of Tennessee described the judicial selection. In this, the justices were elected by the General Assembly and held lifetime tenures. The Constitution was amended in 1853 to limit judicial terms to eight years and the election was shifted from the General Assembly to the people. In 1971, this was changed at the appellate level under the "Modified Missouri Plan." Justices would be subjected to a "Yes/No" retention vote at the end of the term. Because there are no elections to join the court, all appointments are made by the Governor of the state. This is called the "Tennessee Plan."

Notable firsts

See also

External links



See also: 2010 State Supreme Court elections

Sharon Lee faced retention and was retained.

Tennessee Supreme Court
2010 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
Sharon Lee BallotCheckMark.png n/a 68.2%


See also: State Supreme Court elections, 2008

William Koch, Jr. faced retention and was retained.

Tennessee Supreme Court
2008 General election results
Candidates Votes Percent
William Koch, Jr. BallotCheckMark.png n/a n/a

TennesseeUnited States District Court for the Eastern District of TennesseeUnited States District Court for the Middle District of TennesseeUnited States District Court for the Western District of TennesseeUnited States bankruptcy court, Eastern District of TennesseeUnited States bankruptcy court, Middle District of TennesseeUnited Stataes bankruptcy court, Western District of TennesseeUnited States Court of Appeals for the Sixth CircuitTennessee Supreme CourtTennessee Court of AppealsTennessee Court of Criminal AppealsTennessee Circuit CourtTennessee Chancery CourtsTennessee Criminal CourtTennessee Probate CourtTennessee General Sessions CourtTennessee Juvenile CourtTennessee Municipal CourtTennessee countiesTennessee judicial newsTennessee judicial electionsJudicial selection in TennesseeTennesseeTemplate.jpg