New Laws Improve Tennessee Court System

July 2, 2021

Tennessee lawmakers passed several key pieces of legislation this year that will improve and impact the state’s court system. From the creation of new three-judge panel to hear certain constitutional challenges to the expansion of recovery courts and safe baby courts, the new laws allow the courts to modernize and innovate. Several pieces of legislation also focus on improving data collection in the state courts and in juvenile courts, which will allow for data driven decision making and better resource allocation while continuing the Administrative Office of the Courts efforts to be a world-class repository of court data from every level of court in the state.

“This was a tremendously busy legislative session, much of which occurred while the state was still impacted by COVID-19,” said Deborah Taylor Tate, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. “The General Assembly did an excellent job of moving through legislation that will make the courts more efficient and effective, and we are grateful for their hard work and dedication to the third branch of government.”

In addition to passing legislation, the General Assembly also confirmed Judge Jill Bartee Ayers to the Court of Criminal Appeals in April 2021. In addition, Governor Bill Lee and the General Assembly provided new appropriations to shore up indigent representation, the court system’s technology fund, and the Board of Judicial Conduct as well as appropriations to expand and refresh the Tennessee Court Information System (TnCIS) and build a juvenile justice case management system.

New legislation impacting the court system is described below.

Constitutional Challenges to State Law

 Three-judge panels to hear cases challenging constitutionality of state actions. The General Assembly passed a law that creates a three-judge panel to hear a challenge regarding the constitutionality of a state statute, an executive order, or an administrative rule or regulation. This includes challenges to the constitutionality of a state statute that apportions or redistricts state legislative or congressional districts. The Supreme Court will select two trial court judges to sit with the judge to whom the case was originally assigned. There will be one judge from each of Tennessee’s three grand divisions and the Supreme Court will designate a chief judge for the case. On the panel, a majority vote rules. The venue for the case is the county where the plaintiff resides and is Sumner County if the plaintiff is not a Tennessee resident. The Supreme Court has issued preliminary rules on how the panels will operate, which are available here. Sponsored by Senator Mike Bell and Representative Andrew Farmer

Interlocutory appeals in cases challenging constitutionality of state actions. A new statute allows the State Attorney General to immediately file an appeal regarding a court decision to enjoin a state law based on its constitutionality. This will accelerate the appeals process so laws are not left in limbo. Sponsored by Senator Brian Kelsey and Representative Michael Curcio

New and Expanded Courts and Dockets

Funding for the 32nd Judicial District. The state’s 32nd judicial district will be officially created on September 1, 2022 and will include Lewis, Perry, and Hickman counties. After that date, the 21st judicial district will include just Williamson County.  This appropriation was to ensure proper funding for the 32nd judicial district. Sponsored by Senator Joey Hensley and Representative Michael Curcio

Alternatives to Incarceration Act. The new law expands Tennessee’s successful Recovery Court System, which includes Veterans Courts, Mental Health Courts and Drug Courts, to those charged with misdemeanor assaults. Studies show these courts have an excellent track record for individuals who require specialized and highly accountable treatment. It also gives judges the discretion to provide treatment for individuals who need it when the facts of their case indicate that a recovery court is the best correction option available. This legislation is part of Governor Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform initiative. Sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson and Representation William Lamberth.

Safe Baby Court Program. New Safe Baby Courts will be developed in both Maury and Sumner counties, bringing the state’s total number of courts focusing on the needs of children aged zero to three to 14.  The state’s Safe Baby Courts are thriving, with new courts opening even during the pandemic, and have served hundreds of Tennessee families. This is a joint project with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile

General Sessions Judge for Johnson County. All 95 Tennessee counties have general sessions, or county, courts. Some general sessions judges are only part-time. This bill authorizes Johnson County to employ a full-time general sessions judge. Sponsored by Senator Jon Lundberg and Representative Scotty Campbell

Data Collection

Criminal justice data collection.  The Tennessee Court Information System (TnCIS) will undergo and multi-million dollar refresh.  This system tracks court data in 87 counties and can assist with policymaking related to courts, crime, and recidivism.  In addition to the refresh, legislation requires the Administrative Office of Courts to provide each court clerk in eight counties which have not installed TnCIS with a list of data that is required to be integrated. Sponsored by Senator Ferrell Haile and Representative David Hawk

Reporting of juvenile data.  A new appropriation included in the Administration Bill and approved by the Legislature will help fund the creation of a new juvenile case management and data collection system. This is part of an ongoing modernization and expansion of data collection and analysis for the courts, which will lead to data driven decision making. In addition, new legislation requires juvenile court staff to report information on new delinquent or unruly cases and their outcomes to the Administrative Office of the Courts. It establishes reporting requirements for the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services to the Administrative Office of the Courts regarding children referred to services by the juvenile court system. Sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson and Representative William Lamberth

Victims Rights

Lifetime order of protection -Under this legislation, a victim of a felony offense of assault, criminal homicide, attempted homicide, kidnapping, or sexual offenses may file a petition for a lifetime order of protection against their convicted offender. Previously, victims had to go to court each year to renew their order of protection.  Documents for the new lifetime order of protection are available here. News story available here. Sponsored by Senator Mike Bell and Representative William Lamberth

Restitutions First.This legislation imposes a new allocation formula for money paid into court matters after January 1, 2022. The first money will be paid toward restitution of the victim; once restitution is paid, the next money will go toward litigation taxes; once those are paid, the money will go toward payment of costs; and finally, money will be allocated to payment of any fines. Sponsored by Senator John Stevens and Representative Clay Doggett

Courthouse spaces for victims. In some courthouses, victims of crimes must wait for court proceedings in the same space as defendants, witnesses, and family members, which can lead to intimidation, anxiety, and stress. This legislation requires the District Attorneys General Conference (DAGC) to assess whether victims of crime have separate and secure waiting areas during all critical stages of the judicial process and to submit a report to the Chairs of the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Senate and the House of Representatives Criminal Justice Committee by March 1, 2022.  The DAGC will also determine if grant funding is available for creating or improving such waiting areas and assist judicial districts in achieving such creation or improvement.  Senator Ferrell Haile and Representative Michael Curcio

Sentencing And Reentry

Full Sentences For Certain Offenses. After July 1, 2021, a person convicted of certain crimes must serve their full sentence and cannot be released early for good behavior. Credit for good behavior can be used toward other privileges, but not for time served. Sponsored by Lieutenant Governor Randy McNally and House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

Reentry Success Act.This key piece of legislation is part of Governor Bill Lee’s criminal justice reform package and aims to reduce recidivism rates by better preparing inmates for reentry. It includes mandatory supervision for all inmates reentrying the community. Also includes other modifications to the parole process, including when a judge may temporarily revoke and incarcerate a probationer for a technician violation. Sponsored by Senator Jack Johnson and Representative William Lamberth.

Expungements

Notification of possible expungement. Expungements assist Tennesseans with securing jobs, housing, and education and are an essential tool in the overall economic rebound. This law requires judges, at the time of sentencing, if practicable, to notify a person convicted of an offense eligible for an expunction of their eligibility to have all public records of the conviction destroyed. It requires the Administrative Office of the Courts to provide judges handling criminal matters with a document listing each offense eligible for expunction and the time period after which the offense is eligible.  Expungement information is available here. Sponsored by Senator Brenda Gilmore and Representative G.A. Hardaway

Search Warrants

Establishing new policies regarding the use of force by law enforcement. While this bill primarily focuses on techniques and training used by law enforcement, it also prohibits judges from signing no-knock warrants. Sponsored by Senator Mike Bell and Representative Michael Curcio

Custody Cases

Written findings in custody cases.This legislation requires a court to include written findings of fact and conclusions of law to support a custody arrangement or parenting plan, unless both parents have agreed. Senator Mike Bell and Representative Mary Littleton

Juvenile Cases

Probable cause to detain a child in a secure facility. This legislation allows a child to be detained in a secure facility when there is probable cause to believe the child has committed certain offenses including burglary, aggravated burglary, robbery, or theft of a motor vehicle. It removes language that specifies that the juvenile court may order detention for a maximum of 48 hours for the delinquent child to be served only on days the school in which the child is enrolled is not in session. Sponsored by Senator Dawn White and Representative William Lamberth

Board of Judicial Conduct

Board of Judicial Conduct Sunset.The law extends the Board of Judicial Conduct to June 30, 2025, and requires the Board to appear before the government operations joint evaluation committee on judiciary and government no later than December 31, 2021, to provide the committee an update on board-related activities. Sponsored by Senator Kerry Roberts and Representative John Ragan