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 court at Jonesborough for the “Washington District.” After the organization of Washington County 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, two hundred miles to the east.
As the new counties of Sullivan (1779) and Greene (1783) were formed, each had its own Court of Common Pleas. In order to try appeals from the Common Pleas courts of the new counties locally, North Carolina established the Washington District Superior Court of Law and Equity at Jonesborough in 1784. The same process followed the development farther west 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 from western counties. This two-court system survived through the territorial period.
The 1796 Constitution of Tennessee gave justices of the peace sole jurisdiction over cases involving less than fifty dollars 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” court 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 of modest money or property value. A clerk kept minutes of the court’s proceedings and handled the court’s business between sessions.
The Superior Courts of Law and Equity maintained sole jurisdiction over cases punishable by loss of life or limb and cases of greater dollar value. They also served as courts of appeal from the Court of Common Pleas. Many 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 Jonesborough (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 and Appeals. The division of cases among the courts varied from 1809 to 1833 as the legislature and the judges worked out the new system. 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 of Errors and Appeals heard larger equity cases and appeals from the other two courts.
By 1829 the existing court system was strained to the limits. Adam Huntsman reported to the state 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 expensive and inefficient. Legal reform became a major issue driving the need for a new constitution.
The 1834 Constitution of Tennessee reorganized the judiciary by adding a system of Chancery Courts. This provided 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 were limited to trying non-indictable offenses (such as swearing, bastardy, and gambling) and tending to estate matters, roads, and other county business. The Tennessee Supreme Court reduced its circuit to three districts meeting in Knoxville, Nashville, and Jackson.
The Chancery Court was originally a district court but gradually established courts in each county. The Chancellor (judge of Chancery) weighed the evidence in equity cases and decided on a fair division among the parties. The 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 decided 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 Tennessee Supreme Court causes its records to reflect the operations of all the lower courts. The case files of this court, preserved in 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.
Theodore Brown Jr., “The Tennessee County Courts under the North Carolina and Territorial Governments,” Vanderbilt Law Review 32 (1979): 349; Joshua Caldwell, Studies in the Constitutional History of Tennessee (1907)