Tennessee Supreme Court

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Tennessee Supreme Court
Court information
Justices:   5
Founded:   1870
Location:   Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville, Tennessee
Chief:  $182,000
Associates:  $177,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Assisted appointment
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 the Tennessee 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 term. The court generally meets in the cities of Jackson, Nashville and Knoxville in Tennessee, as required by the Tennessee Constitution, but it may also meet in other locations when needed.


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

Four of the five current justices on the court were appointed by Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen.

Chief justice

The current chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court is Sharon Lee. She took over the position on September 1, 2014, from Justice Gary R. Wade. Wade was appointed to the office in September 2012 to succeed former Justice Janice Holder, the state's first female chief justice. According to the Tennessee Constitution, the justices of the supreme court select the chief justice.[1]

Judicial selection

Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court are appointed by the governor of Tennessee. The justice, after serving an eight-year term, can then be retained by a retention vote for another term.


A qualified candidate for the Tennessee Supreme Court is one who meets the requirements set out in Article 8-18-101 of the Tennessee Constitution. The person must be at least 35 years old and have been a resident of Tennessee for at least five years. He or she must also be an attorney licensed to practice law in the state.[2]


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 also has appellate jurisdiction in cases involving state taxes, the right to hold public office, and issues of constitutional law.[3]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2014 1,198 1,153
2013 1180* 1,127*
2012 1,052 1,118
2011 1,195 1,228
2010 1,094 1,120
2009 1,086 1,106
2008 1,086 1,030
2007 1,089 1,268

''*''The Annual Report for fiscal year 2012-2013 provided different statistics than previous years. The filings and disposition numbers for 2013 come from the "Clearance Rate" section of the report and reflects every filing the supreme court received during fiscal year 2012-2013. Additionally, the disposition total includes opinions, orders and denials of discretionary requests for appeals.



JudgeElection Vote
LeeSharon LeeApprovedA56.0%   ApprovedA
WadeGary R. WadeApprovedA56.6%   ApprovedA
ClarkCornelia ClarkApprovedA55.3%   ApprovedA
See also: Tennessee judicial elections, 2014
See also: Tennessee Supreme Court elections, 2014

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.[5]

Notable decisions

"Tennessee Plan" litigation

Tennessee Supreme Court

The "Tennessee Plan," wherein judges are appointed by the governor, 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 made the judicial branch subordinate to the legislative branch. The plan was again challenged in the case of DeLaney v. Thompson (1998). The plaintiffs in that case 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 was too close to the issue when it issued its decision. 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 the case, however, refused to rule on the constitutionality of the plan, and instead remanded the case on a technicality.[6]

Effect of the "Tennessee Plan"

Only one member of the Tennessee Supreme Court has ever failed to be retained, or removed from the bench, under the "Tennessee Plan." Former Justice Penny White was removed in 1996. The campaign against her was 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.[7]

Holder opposes elections

Former Chief Justice Janice Holder stated publicly in 2008 that she and her colleagues at the time on the supreme court were unanimous in support of maintaining the state’s current system of selecting its appellate court judges. Republican leaders in the state legislature argued that the current "Tennessee Plan" violates the state constitution, which provides that "[t]he judges of the Supreme Court shall be elected by the qualified voters of the state." Despite the Plan's constitutionally questionable nature, Holder stated:

"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."[8][9]

Anna Mae He case

Tennessee made international news in the early 2000s when foster parents Jerry and Louise Baker fought biological parents Jack and Cindy He for custody of Anna Mae. The Hes, Chinese citizens residing in the United States on visas, were unable to financially care for Anna Mae and sought help from Mid-South Christian Services, which placed the baby with the Bakers. The placement was intended to be for just three months but was later extended as the Hes remained unable to care for Anna Mae. The two couples reached an agreement that gave temporary custody to the Bakers but did not terminate the parental rights of the Hes. In addition to the written agreement, the Bakers claimed in court that the Hes orally agreed to allow the Bakers to retain custody of Anna Mae until she graduated high school. The Hes denied this and claimed that the custody arrangement was to be temporary only.

When the Hes attempted to regain custody of Anna Mae once they were able to care for her, the Bakers refused and eventually filed a petition for adoption. The Bakers claimed the Hes willfully abandoned Anna Mae. A court battle erupted, leading all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court. The high court reversed a lower court's termination of the Hes' parental rights and ordered that the little girl be returned to her biological parents. In its opinion, the supreme court held that biological parents had "superior parental rights" which trump all other claims of custody of a child.

The Bakers asked the United States Supreme Court to step in and stay the Tennessee Supreme Court order to return custody, but their request was denied.[10]

As a result of this case, the Tennessee General Assembly passed legislation known as the "Anna Mae He Act." In it, the legislature attempted to better define terms such as "willfully failed to support" and "willfully failed to visit," both of which were at issue in the epic court case. The bill was sponsored by G.A. Hardaway, a state representative from Memphis where the Bakers and Hes lived.[11]


Judicial conduct

The Code of Judicial Conduct sets forth ethical guidelines and principles for the conduct of judges and judicial candidates in Tennessee. It consists of four overarching canons:

  • Canon 1: "A judge shall uphold and promote the independence, integrity, and impartiality of the judiciary and shall avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety."
  • Canon 2: "A judge shall perform the duties of judicial office impartially, competently, and diligently."
  • Canon 3: "A judge shall conduct the judge’s personal and extrajudicial activities to minimize the risk of conflict with the obligations of judicial office."
  • Canon 4: "A judge or candidate for judicial office shall not engage in political or campaign activity that is inconsistent with the independence, integrity, or impartiality of the judiciary." [12]

The full text of Tennessee's Code of Judicial Conduct can be found here

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.[13]

History of the court

Current Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court: (seated) Chief Justice Sharon Lee and standing (left to right) Justice Holly M. Kirby, Justice Jeffrey S. Bivins, Justice Gary R. Wade, and Cornelia Clark

The Tennessee Constitution of 1870 requires the court of five justices to meet in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson. These cities were the largest in each of the three sections of the state--East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee and West Tennessee--in 1870. Having the court meet in all three sections is meant to represent all citizens of the state and to prevent regional bias. At least one justice, but no more than two justices, must be from one of the three sections of the state.[14]

Former justices

This exhaustive list provides the names of the judges of the Southwest Territory (1790-1796), the district or superior court judges (1796-1809), the judges of the Court of Errors and Appeals (1810-1833) and the Supreme Court judges under the Tennessee constitutions of 1834 and 1870. Several counties in the state of Tennessee were named after judges on this list. Additionally, Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States and a lawyer by trade, served on the Tennessee Supreme Court for six-years prior to his foray into national politics. Note: Not all term end dates are available.[15]

Video interviews with retired justices

The Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society interviewed nine former justices as part of its effort to "ensur[e] the records and history of the Tennessee Supreme Court and the other courts of Tennessee were not only preserved but also accessible to the citizens of our State."[18] These interviews were recorded and made available online.

Retired Justice Frank F. Drowota, III
Retired Justice William Muecke Barker
Retired Justice Penny J. White
Retired Justice George H. Brown, Jr.
Retired Justice E. Riley Anderson, II
Retired Justice Robert E. Cooper
Retired Justice Martha Craig Daughtrey
Retired Justice Lyle Reed
Retired Justice Adolpho A. Birch

See also

External links


  2. Bradley County Election Commission, "Bradley Elections: Tennessee Qualifications," accessed September 2, 2014
  3. TNCourts.gov, "Supreme Court," accessed December 15, 2014
  4. TNCourts.gov, "Annual Statistical Reports," accessed September 2, 2014 See "Cases for Decision"
  5. Stanford University, "State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns," October 31, 2012
  6. Robert L. Delaney vs. Brook Thompson, 01S01-9808-CH-00144 (Tenn. 1998)
  7. Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy, "A Penny for the Court's Thoughts? The High Price of Judicial Elections by Bronson D. Bills," Winter 2008
  8. The Commercial Appeal, "State Supreme Court wants to keep retention system," September 3, 2008
  9. Note: This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.
  10. Tennessee Supreme Court, "In Re: Adoption of A.M.H.," January 23, 2007
  11. Memphis Daily News, "Anna Mae He Act Making Way Through General Assembly," May 14, 2007
  12. TNCourts.gov, "Rule 10: Code of Judicial Conduct," accessed May 15, 2014
  13. Center for Public Integrity, "State supreme court judges reveal scant financial information," December 5, 2013
  14. TNCrimlaw.com, "Tennessee Constitution - Judicial Department," accessed December 18, 2014
  15. Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society, "Justices," accessed December 17, 2014
  16. Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society, "Alphabetical List of Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court," accessed December 17, 2014
  17. Tennessee Bar Association, "Horace Maynard: The Tennessee Supreme Court Judge Who Wasn’t," September 7, 2011
  18. Tennessee Supreme Court Historical Society