Are Tennessee Court Records Public?
Court records, as well as any document or material produced by government agencies and departments in the course of their official duties, are public records in Tennessee. The Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA) grants the members of the public the right to inspect and make copies of documents and materials maintained by government bodies. Enacted in 1957, the TPRA ensures the transparency and accountability of public officials. To gain access to public records, inquirers must properly file requests orally or in writing to the Public Record Request Coordinator (PRRC). The PRRC ensures that public records requests are filed and dispatched to the body in possession of the record being sought.
Custodians of public records reserve the right to deny some record requests. Section 10-7-504 of the Tennessee Annotated Code exempts some records from public disclosure. These exemptions are regularly updated as the TPRA undergoes amendments, and as of the last check, more than 538 previously public documents are no longer public records. Information such as medical records and personal details of former or current public employees are not accessible by members of the public. Individual judges’ files regarding their recusal from cases are also not open to the public unless included officially as part of case records. Tennessee residents can use the Public Records Exception Database to confirm the status of any public record of interest.
How Do I Find Court Records In Tennessee?
The first step to take when trying to obtain court records in Tennessee is to determine the court that tried the cases of interest. Courthouses keep official records of court hearings, and the clerks serve as custodians of court records. The different classes of courts and the types of cases heard in Tennessee are:
- Circuit Courts: Cases involving proving guilt or innocence are tried at the Circuit Courts. Civil cases like debts owed, divorce, and assault are among those in the purview of this court. The Court also tries criminal cases such as theft, gambling, and murder.
- Chancery Courts: Chancery Courts resolve equity issues in determining what will be fair to all parties in the case. Examples of cases tried at the Chancery Courts include land disputes, Asset sharing during divorces, and dissolution of business partnerships.
- Court of Appeals: Tennessee Court of Appeals resolves non-criminal issues emanating from the lower courts. Any dissatisfied party from a lower court can approach the Court of Appeals.
- Criminal Court of Appeals: The Criminal Court of Appeals hears appeals of felony and misdemeanor cases earlier tried at the Circuit Courts. The Criminal Court of Appeals also hears post-conviction appeals.
- Supreme Court: The Tennessee Supreme Court is the highest in the state. The Supreme Court resolves every issue emanating from the lower courts, including the other appellate courts.
Inquirers may submit public record requests to the clerks of the different courthouses. The Tennessee Annotated Code sets a copying fee of 50¢ per page of court records. A $5 fee is charged for certification and seal or for making copies of an abstract.
Custodians of public records in Tennessee must respond to any public record request within seven business days. If a request is denied, the custodian must state the reason for rejecting such request. Requestors must be notified promptly of any record request that will not be available within seven days.
Tennessee State Library and Archives
The Tennessee State Library and Archives keeps records of court minutes from the Circuit, County, and Chancery Courts in the state. Minutes are summaries of court proceedings and are different from full transcripts. They are preserved as indexes with 5-year intervals each. Inquirers must provide the defendant’s surname, the county the specific case of interest was tried, and a 5-year date span to include the year the court tried the case when making their request.
Requestors are charged a non-refundable $5 fee to search through any 5-year index. The fee covers the cost of making 20 pages of the requested court record available to the inquirer. Additional pages after the initial 20 copies attract a fee of 50¢ per page. Payments must be made in advance via money order, checks, or credit cards to obtain copies of any record. Requestors should complete the court record request form and send, alongside the proof of payment, to:
Tennessee State Library and Archives
403, Seventh Avenue North
Nashville, TN 37243-0312
The Tennessee State Library and Archives sends requested records by US mail to the address specified by the inquirer. To certify a court record, the inquirer must pay a non-refundable fee of $5 for every copy certified. The requestor may also ask that the documents be delivered as PDF files via email. The inquirer must check the email option under the delivery instruction section of the court record request form for email delivery. If no boxes are checked, or if the requestor submitted more than one email address, the requested record will be sent by US mail. Records that cannot be sent via email will also be sent by US mail even if the inquirer requests email delivery. However, the Tennessee State Library and Archives do not certify copies of court records sent by email.
The Tennessee Supreme Court Public Case History
The Public Case History is an online tool that allows members of the public to remotely gain access to public court records of the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Criminal Court of Appeals. Also known as C-Track, it is a case management system maintained by the Appellate Court Clerk. Members of the public can access every order, motion, judgment, and opinion from August 26, 2013, to date. Cases before August 2013 are currently being transferred to the C-Track platform.
Interested persons may query the Public Case History for records in the following ways:
- Search by Case Number: Inquirers can use the sequence number listed in the appeal to search the database. For example, if a particular case number is M2017-01185-COA-R3-PT, 1185 is the sequence number.
- Search by Case Style: Any part of the title used by the court to name a case can be used to search a court record.
- Search by Name of Any Party to an Appeal: Inquirers can use the name of any confirmed party to an appeal to search a court record. For instance, entering the name, David will return cases that have David as one of the parties to a case.
- Search by Name of Organization: The name of an organization that was a party to any appeal can be used to search the database for a record of interest.
Considered open to citizens of the United States, public records are available through both traditional, government sources, and through third-party websites and organizations. In many cases, third-party websites make the search easier as they are not limited geographically or by technological limitations. They are considered a good place to start when looking for a specific record or multiple records. In order to gain access to these records, interested parties must typically provide:
- The name of the person listed in the record. Juveniles are typically exempt from this search method.
- The last known or assumed location of the person listed in the record. This includes cities, counties, and states.
While third-party sites offer such services, they are not government sponsored entities, and record availability may vary on these sites when compared to government sources.
How Do Tennessee Courts Work?
There are four levels of the Tennessee court system. They are the Supreme Court, Appellate Courts, Trial Courts, and Courts of Limited Jurisdiction.
The Courts of Limited Jurisdiction include the Juvenile Courts, Municipal Courts, and the General Sessions Courts. These are small courts that try petty cases. Municipal Courts only try cases whose fines are not more than $50, and jail terms are not more than 30 days. Juvenile Courts exclusively try cases involving minors. The jurisdiction of the General Sessions Court is also limited, and it varies from county to county. For criminal cases, the powers of the General Sessions Court are only limited to preliminary hearings for felonies. Misdemeanor cases where the defendant waives the right to a grand jury investigation and further trials in a Circuit Court are also heard at the General Sessions Court.
The state trial courts are the Circuit Courts, Chancery Courts, Criminal Courts, and Probate Courts. The Circuit and Chancery Courts are present in all 31 judicial districts of Tennessee. Circuit Courts hear both civil and criminal cases but owing to the huge caseload on the Circuit Courts, separate Criminal Courts were established in some judicial districts. Criminal Courts try criminal cases exclusively. Chancery Courts hear cases involving the need to establish equity. To resolve these cases, the Chancellor may not strictly follow the law to find what is fair to all parties involved. Probate Courts are not present in all of Tennessee counties. Cases involving wills, administration of estates, and guardianships are tried at the Probate Courts under the authority of the Probate Judge.
Two Courts of Appeals make up the Appellate Courts. The Court of Appeals was established by the Tennessee General Assembly in 1925. The court hears appeals of non-criminal cases from the state trial courts and some state boards and commissions. The court has twelve judges who sit in panels of three at Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville to decide on appeals. The other Appellate Court is the Criminal Court of Appeals. It was established in 1967 with the mandate to hear appeals of criminal cases earlier decided by the lower trial courts. The Criminal Court of Appeals also has twelve judges who sit monthly in panels of three.
The highest court in Tennessee is the Tennessee Supreme Court. The court has five justices who review appeals from lower courts and interpret the Tennessee and the United States’ constitutions. When there is a need for the speedy resolution of some cases, the Tennessee Supreme Court may assume jurisdiction over cases already before any of the Appellate Courts.
The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC), headed by a director appointed by the Supreme Court, supports all the courts that make up the Tennessee court system. The AOC prepares the annual budget of courts, manages the payroll system of the court system, assists judges with case assignments, among many other functions.
What Are Civil Court and Small Claims in Tennessee?
Small claims are non-criminal disputes involving the recovery of funds or money owed. Tennessee small claims courts are divisions of the General Sessions Court that handle cases involving money disputes up to a certain limit per statute 16-15-501. For Tennessee counties with less than 700,000 population, disputes of $15,000 or less are heard at the General Sessions Court. For counties that have more than 700,000 residents, cases of up to a $25,000 limit are tried at the General Sessions Courts. However, no limit is set for eviction or recovery of personal property disputes. No matter the amount involved, these disputes can be brought before the General Sessions Court.
To file a small claims suit, contact the General Sessions Court where the defendant resides. Small claims cases can also be filed where the property is located or where the dispute emerged. Filing the suit at a court in any other location can lead to the dismissal of the case.
Some of the cases that can be tried as small claims at the General Sessions Court are:
- Bad debt
- Dog bite
- Damaged clothing during cleaning
- Return of security deposit
What Are Appeals and Court Limits?
Appeals, the review by higher courts of the decision of lower courts, must be filed with the clerk of the Appellate Courts within 30 days after the judgment to be appealed has been served. However, the time limit is sometimes waived for criminal cases in the interest of justice.
The defendant can file a direct appeal if dissatisfied with the validity of the conviction or sentencing. If it is a criminal case, the appeal will be filed at the Criminal Court of Appeal. The state responds to the notice of appeal by filing a responsive brief through an attorney from the Criminal Appeals Division of the Attorney General’s Office (AGO). The court, with a 4-man panel, may decide to allow oral arguments and give a ruling after reviewing the briefs.
Dissatisfied defendants can go ahead to seek the permission of the Tennessee Supreme Court for further appeals. The Supreme Court reserves the right to reject any request for additional appeals after the ruling of the Criminal Court of Appeal. If permission is granted, lawyers from parties involved will submit briefs while oral arguments may also be requested by the court. The five justices of the Supreme Court review the case and make a ruling. However, if the Tennessee Supreme Court rejects the appeal application, the decision of the Criminal Court of Appeal becomes final. The only exception to this process is when a defendant has been handed capital punishment. The appeal process bypasses the Criminal Court of Appeal and goes directly to the Tennessee Supreme Court.
Petitions for post-conviction appeals can be raised till about one year after the judgment of the highest court of the land. These motions seeking to overturn the judgment of the Tennessee Supreme Court are filed at the Trial Courts.
What Are Tennessee Judgment Records?
Tennessee judgment records are created when the court issues a decision or order regarding a civil plea or criminal case. Unless the litigants pursue an appeal, issuing this judgment typically signifies the end of most cases. In any way, a judgment becomes binding when the court clerk enters it into the court record. The clerk will also maintain a copy of the judgment for official purposes. This document is open to the public under the Tennessee Public Records Act (TPRA). A typical Tennessee judgment record contains the litigants' names, case summary, the court's decision or order, and the judgment date.
Interested persons may obtain a copy, provided the individual has the necessary details to facilitate a search to retrieve the case file from the court archives. The search for judgment records in Tennessee begins at the clerk's office in the court where the case was adjudicated. The requester must provide the administrative staff with the case number and litigants' names. The requester must also pay court administrative fees, including the cost of making regular or certified copies of the judgment record. Cash, money order, certified check, and credit cards are accepted payment methods.
What are Tennessee Bankruptcy Records?
Tennesse bankruptcy records are documents created and maintained by any of the district bankruptcy courts in Tennessee. A debtor who finds it difficult to pay back a loan as promised can file for bankruptcy. The record of the proceedings will in turn be kept by the court handling the case. Debtors can file for bankruptcy in any of the three federal bankruptcy courts located in Tennessee's Eastern, Middle, and Western Districts. Chapter 7, chapter 11, and chapter 13 are the three primary chapters of the bankruptcy legislation that are most commonly used by individuals and corporations.
Tennessee bankruptcy records are available from each judicial district's local recorders office. Requestors may also get Tennessee liens, judgments, and contracts by searching for them in local courthouses, record repositories, or through specific electronic databases.
How Do I Find My Case Number In Tennessee?
Case numbers, which are unique numbers assigned to different court cases for easy identification, can be found by using the Public Case History tool managed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. The Public Case History has the records of cases heard at the Appellate Courts and the Supreme Court. Interested persons can find their case numbers by searching with names. They can also engage the clerk of the court that tried their cases at the lower courts to retrieve their case numbers. However, finding case numbers at the courthouses may attract some nominal fees.
Can You Look Up Court Cases In Tennessee?
The C-Track case management tool of Public Case History allows interested persons to look up court cases heard by the Tennessee Supreme Court and the Appellate Courts. The name of individuals or organizations who are parties to cases is enough to look up any court case. The Supreme Court also publishes a monthly report of pending cases before it.
Most lower courts in the counties manage online platforms where interested individuals can look up court cases. For instance, Metropolitan Nashville City and Davidson County created an online case management tool called Caselink. Davidson County residents can sign up to have access to court records from the Circuit Court for a monthly subscription fee of $25 only.
Does Tennessee Hold Remote Trials?
The COVID-19 pandemic led to the suspension of in-court proceedings in Tennessee. However, pleas and trials by judges, alongside other motions that can be remotely heard, continue to hold. Online communication resources such as Zoom and a few others are being used for remote trials. The Justices of the Tennessee Supreme Court signed an order suspending jury trials until January 31, 2021, except for those granted permission by the Chief Justice. The AOC has also mandated most court employees to perform their roles remotely but be available to assist the judges at any time required.
What is the Tennessee Supreme Court?
The Tennessee Supreme Court is the court with the highest authority in Tennessee. Five Justices appointed by the governor and confirmed by the General Assembly preside over cases appealed to the Supreme Court from the lower Appellate Courts. Issues involving constitutional law and state taxes are under the jurisdiction of the Tennessee Supreme Court. The five Justices, who represent Tennessee’s grand divisions of West, Middle, and East Tennessee, select a Chief Justice from among themselves. The Tennessee Supreme Court needs the concurrence of at least three of the five Justices to decide on cases brought before it.
Tennessee Court of Appeals
The Tennessee Court of Appeals, created by the General Assembly in 1925, presides over appeals of civil and non-criminal cases emanating from the lower trial courts. Issues originating from some state boards and commissions are also brought before the Tennessee Court of Appeal. There are 12 Judges on the Tennessee Court of Appeals bench, among whom a Chief Judge is elected to serve a 1-year tenure. These judges sit in panels of three at Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville to rule on cases before the Court of Appeals.
Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals
The Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals hears appeals of criminal cases earlier decided by the lower trial courts and some post-conviction petitions. It was established in 1967 by the Legislature. In 1996, the General Assembly increased the number of judges from 9 to 12. The Judges of the Tennessee Criminal Court of Appeals also sit in panels of three at Jackson, Knoxville, and Nashville. They may also sit at other places if necessary. Judges are evaluated by voters at the end of their 8-year tenure and then decide if to renew their term in office or not.
Tennessee Circuit Courts
Circuit Courts in Tennessee are courts of general jurisdiction and are present in all the 31 judicial districts of the state. They preside over both criminal and civil cases, except in districts that have separate Criminal Courts. In locations with both a Circuit Court and a Criminal Court, the Circuit Court presides over civil cases exclusively while criminal cases are tried at the Criminal Court. In districts without a Criminal Court, the Circuit Court presides over both civil and criminal proceedings. Circuit Courts in Tennessee also preside over cases appealed from the lower courts like the Juvenile, Municipal, and the General Sessions Courts.
Tennessee Chancery Courts
Chancery Courts decide equity cases. Issues that require the decision of what will be fair to all parties are heard at the Tennessee Chancery Courts. The presiding Chancellor can adapt state laws in resolving cases and is not entitled to strictly follow the law. Chancery Courts are present in all 31 judicial districts of Tennessee.
Tennessee Criminal Courts
Criminal Courts in Tennessee were set up in 13 of the state’s 31 judicial districts to try criminal cases exclusively. The decision to establish Criminal Courts in the judicial districts was reached to ease the burden on the Circuit Courts.
Tennessee Probate Courts
Probate Courts in Tennessee hear cases involving wills, guardianships, estates, and conservatorships. Shelby and Davidson are the only counties with Probate Courts in Tennessee.
Tennessee General Sessions Courts
General Sessions Courts have limited jurisdiction. The kind of cases they handle in each county differ from one another. They mostly preside over preliminary hearings for felony and misdemeanor cases where the defendant has given up the right to a grand jury investigation. The General Sessions Court also hears civil cases involving a limited amount of money.
Tennessee Juvenile Courts
Juvenile Courts in Tennessee handle legal matters involving minors under the age of 18. There are about 98 Juvenile Courts, with 109 Juvenile Court Judges and 45 Magistrates in Tennessee.
Tennessee Municipal Courts
Municipal Courts in Tennessee are limited to hearing cases with punishments of fines that are not more than $50 and jail terms not more than 30 days. They are also called City Courts and are present in about 300 Tennessee cities.