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Tennessee Supreme Court

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The Tennessee Supreme Court is the highest appellate court of the State of Tennessee. Unlike those of other states, the Tennessee Supreme Court is responsible for the appointment of the state attorney general.

Tennessee Supreme Court rulings on ballot measures

Year Type Ballot measure Legal issue Plaintiff Defendant Court ruling Impact
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The current constitution of the State of Tennessee, adopted in 1870, calls for five justices, of which at least one but not more than two must be from each of the state's three Grand Divisions (East Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and West Tennessee) in order to prevent regional bias.

Additionally, the court is required to meet in Knoxville, Nashville and Jackson, also to prevent regional bias. In recent years this provision has been regarded as permissive rather than restrictive, and the court has also met in other cities throughout the state as part of a legal education project for high school students.

The justices serve eight-year terms and can succeed themselves; the office of chief justice rotates among them. Justices are required to recuse themselves in cases in which they may have a personal interest; the whole court once had to step aside and a case be heard by a special court appointed by the governor, this occurring when the court itself became the subject of litigation, described below.

The Tennessee Supreme Court has no original jurisdiction. Other than in cases of worker's compensation, which have traditionally been appealed directly to it from the trial court, it only hears appeals of civil cases which have been heard by the Court of Appeals, and of criminal cases that have been heard by the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judicial selection

Legislative appointment

The method by which Tennessee's supreme court justices are selected has changed significantly over the years. Originally, justices were elected by the Tennessee General Assembly and held lifetime tenures.


In 1853, the state constitution was amended to set judicial term lengths at eight years, the length at which they remain, and to provide that all judges (including supreme court justices) would be elected by the people. Under this arrangement, a justice could enter office either through gubernatorial appointment (to fill a vacancy) or by winning a partisan election. Either way, the justice would have to stand for re-election during the next general state election.

Retention elections

In 1971, a statute was passed that modified this process at the appellate level. Under the Modified Missouri Plan, appellate judges (including supreme court justices) would only be subjected to a "Yes/No" retention vote rather than partisan opponents. Thus it became impossible to become an appellate judge without being appointed by the governor.

In 1974, supreme court justices were removed from the Modified Missouri Plan, but in 1994 the plan was revised and once again extended to supreme court justices. The plan was also renamed the Tennessee Plan at that time. See Tennessee Code, Annotated article 67.


This method of judicial selection has been challenged in court several times. In the case of Higgins v. Dunn (1973), the Tennessee Supreme Court held that the retention elections were constitutional, as the constitution did not specify what type of elections the General Assembly had to enact for electing judges.

This decision, however, was contentious. Justice Allison Humphries, in his 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 revised Tennessee Plan was 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 been incompetent to render 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 Tennessee Plan, and instead remanded the case on a technicality.[1]

Effect of the Tennessee Plan

As of 2005, only one member of the Tennessee Supreme Court has ever been removed under the Tennessee Plan. Former Justice Penny White was removed in 1996 in a campaign reminiscient of that used a few years prior in California against former Chief Justice Rose Bird, and for largely the same reason: White's apparent opposition to the death penalty.

Current composition

As of June 15, 2007, the justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court were:

Name Born Birthplace Appointed By Beginning of Active Service
Gary Wade May 31, 1948 Knox County, Tennessee Phil Bredesen May 30, 2006
Corneila Clark September 15, 1950 Franklin, Tennessee Phil Bredesen September 19, 2005
William Barker (Chief Justice) September 13, 1941 Chattanooga, Tennessee Don Sundquist April 1998
Janice Holder August 29, 1949 Canonsburg, Pennsylvania Don Sundquist December 1996
William Koch, Jr. September 12, 1947 Honolulu, Hawaii Phil Bredesen June 15, 2007


  1. Robert L. Delaney vs. Brook Thompson, 01S01-9808-CH-00144 (Tenn. 1998).

External links