History of the Circuit Court
This is a history on the development of Davidson County and its court system. The historical facts and data were assembled with the counsel and assistance of past and present judges of the circuit and criminal courts. The information was first published in booklet form and distributed to jurors for educational purposes. We now offer this updated version for the same reason while acknowledging the contributions of the late Honorable Arthur Crownover, Jr., the late Honorable John M. Cate and the late Alf Rutherford. We are also grateful for the assistance of attorney Harlan Dodson III and other members of the Nashville Bar Association who helped make this presentation possible.
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It must have been a beautiful trip through the Great Smoky Mountains as a hardy band of pioneers from North Carolina girded their way west during the fall of 1779 in search of a settlement.
The glorious foliage of unmolested forests most assuredly was breathtaking, even more so than today in climates drastically modified by modern advancement.
One can imagine the spine-tingling sensation that the pioneers surely felt as they stood along the foothills, staring in amazement at the awesome vastness of autumn radiance coating the mountains that surrounded them.
The panoramic beauty, while putting God's creations in their proper perspective, also served to soften the hardships of the ant-like creatures as they inched along the countryside in quest of the ultimate place to call home.
As days turned into weeks, the brilliant hues of the landscaping would transform to drab, brown sameness and tumble listlessly to the earth to become a blanket of noisy carpeting, alerting wild game that hungry intruders were approaching. But the art of hunting was the code of survival to the pioneers and the virgin wilderness would help hone their expertise and provide an ample reserve of fodder for the cold days ahead.
With Col. James Robertson at the helm, the pioneers slowly distanced themselves from their starting point of Watauga, N. C. until finally ending their voyage on Christmas eve at a location that would eventually become Nashville. At that particular point in time, their new-found homeland had no name and was still considered a part of North Carolina.
But what a Christmas gift the pioneers had received. To them, the paradise that surrounded them must have represented the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. They discovered a spring on the banks of the Cumberland River and near there built a small fort that would serve both as living quarters and protection against Indians.
Today, a replica of the original Fort Nashboro reminds us of that early settlement.
Through primitive communication methods, word of the pioneers' discovery reverberated throughout the hills and by springtime the first settlers were joined by more than 200 others equally as intent on making a new home.
It was a man by the name of John Donelson who successfully commanded a flotilla of 30 boats that brought the newcomers to this mid-southern haven. And when they arrived on April 24, 1779, they hit the ground running. For within a month's time the settlers created a crude governmental organization under the style of the "Cumberland Compact."
During the next four years, the group survived the hardships of the wilderness and the hostilities of the Indians. Finally, in 1783, they petitioned the legislature of North Carolina (of which they were a part) to provide a county governmental organization for them.
Their request was formally granted on May 17 of that year. Their new civil municipality would be named Davidson County in honor of Gen. William Davidson, a North Carolina revolutionary war hero from Mecklenberg.
The date was May 17, 1783 when a four-year effort to create a county government came to fruition.
Included in the municipal acts was the creation of an 'inferior court of pleas and quarter sessions for Davidson County, N. C." Under that section, the governor of North Carolina was vested with the power of appointing four citizens to form the new court. Isaac Bledsoe, Samuel Barton, Francis Price and Isaac Lindsay were selected to the commission, which chose justices without respect to any divisions in the area. Later, military districts were formed with two justices being selected from each district.
This was Davidson County's first court and it was vested with broad powers, covering a wide range of subjects. The court had jurisdiction over all legal, judicial, legislative, executive, military and prudential affairs of the county. The court evolved into our county court, which now functions as probate court.
It should be noted that Tennessee did not become a state of its own until 1796 when it was adopted by a constitutional committee acting upon a proposal by Andrew Jackson. The name as taken from that given to one of the state's early counties.
The name "Tennessee" is of Cherokee Indian origin and was originally spelled and pronounced "Tannassie." Extensive research has not established that the name has any meaning other than a proper noun.
Six years before Tennessee became a state, Davidson County was ceded to the territory of the United States southwest of the Ohio River. It then came under the territorial government of the Mero District and remained as such until Tennessee came into existence.
Since Tennessee had not been created when the territory's first counties were developed, they were originally made parts of the adjoining judicial districts of North Carolina, the state that created them. But in 1784, the counties of Washington, Sullivan, Green and Davidson were grouped to constitute a separate judicial district, known at the time as the District of Washington.
The new district covered the whole of the territory now Tennessee. Davidson County comprised most of what is now Middle Tennessee and covered an area of nearly twelve thousand square miles. Therefore, in 1785, Davidson County was given a separate court.
Given a separate court in 1785, the first division of Davidson County came just one year later when Sumner County was created. Then came Tennessee County, which remained intact until 1796 when it was split into Robertson and Montgomery counties.
In establishing courts for its annexed territory, North Caroline vested them with general jurisdiction in law and equity, just as it was across the mountains. But in 1787 the twofold court of law and equity was divided and it was enacted that the Chancery branch of the court should be styled the "court of equity." A clerk and master was appointed for each division, but both courts continued to be held by the same judge.
In 1809, the superior courts of law and equity were abolished. Circuit courts were established in their stead and invested with all their powers and jurisdiction, both at common law and in equity. A Supreme Court of Errors and Appeals was created by the same statute, to be composed of two supreme judges and one of the circuit court judges. A new act two years later would give this Supreme Court exclusive jurisdiction in all equity cases rising in the circuit courts and the right to take disposition was accorded either party equally. Previously, testimony in equity suits was generally oral.
The new act repealed so much of the 1809 act that circuit judges were authorized to sit with the supreme judges.
The circuit courts derived their name from the fact that jurisdiction extended over several counties making up a particular district or circuit created by the legislature. Both population and area had much to do with fixing a particular circuit. In holding terms of the courts in years past, the judges actually "rode the circuits."
Presently, there are 31 such judicial districts in the state. Due to density of population, the circuit courts of Davidson County have jurisdiction in the twentieth judicial district, which includes Davidson County only. However, there are other circuit courts in Tennessee which still have several counties in their circuits and under their jurisdiction.
Before Davidson County got its first circuit court, three others had already been created in other districts of the state. Then-Gov. William Blount commissioned Davidson County's First Circuit Court on Nov. 24, 1809 and it was duly organized on March 12, 1810 with Thomas Stuart, esquire, becoming the first on the bench.
Early minute books of the circuit court are fragmented and rather sketchy. And for several years thereafter the history of the court is not too well delineated. Archibald Roane and Bennett Searcy are names that appear in the early minute books as judges, but it is impossible to say whether they were duly appointed or were serving only as special judges.
It is known that a single circuit judge managed adequately to hear and determine the cases in Davidson County until the year 1895 when the load became so heavy it was necessary to give him some relief. The legislature that year created the Second Circuit Court and, on Feb. 14, 1895, Claude Waller was appointed as its judge.
The 1913 General Assembly created a Third Circuit Court and then-Gov. Ben Hooper appointed George N. Tillman as its judge, effective Sept. 23, 1913. Tillman's turn at the helm lasted only a year. He was replaced on the bench by Alf G. Rutherford, who became a candidate for the First Circuit Court bench in 1918, was elected to it and served upon it, making him the only judge to serve on more than one of the parts of circuit court.
Senate Bill No. 72 of the 1957 General Assembly established a Fourth Circuit Court, extending concurrent jurisdiction with the other three courts in all matters involving divorces, annulments, separate support and maintenance, custody, support and care of children, adoptions, actions under the Uniform Reciprocal Enforcement Act, appeals from the juvenile court and all other proceedings involving domestic matters, including the relationship of husband and wife, parent and child. Benson Trimble presided over the court as its first judge from April 15, 1957 until his retirement on Aug. 31, 1982.
A Fifth Circuit Court was created by the 83rd General Assembly and given concurrent jurisdiction with the first, second and third courts. Sam L. Felts, Jr., was appointed judge by then-Gov. Frank G. Clement. Felts served from April 17, 1963 until Sept. 1, 1974.
The same legislature that created a Fifth Circuit Court in 1963 also established a court of record to be known as the Probate Court. It was given concurrent jurisdiction with the Fourth Circuit Court.
The act provided that the county judge of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County should serve as judge of the new court. Shelton Luton held that position from May 6, 1963 until Sept. 1, 1982.
A Sixth Circuit Court came into being with Chapter 264 of the Public Acts of 1965, which gave the new court equal jurisdiction with the others.
James M. Swiggart convened the new court on April 26, 1965 and remained on the bench for the next 24 years.
(In 1998, the state legislature officially made the Probate Court the Seventh Circuit Court (Probate Division) and created an Eighth Circuit Court to which Carol Soloman was elected to preside.)
Circuit judges of the state had been given concurrent jurisdiction with the Supreme Court in all equity cases back in 1813 and the circuit clerks were made Clerks and Masters in Equity. In 1817, it was provided that equity causes, wherein a circuit judge was incompetent, might be adjourned to the Supreme Court and there be heard on original papers as though brought there originally.
Equity jurisdiction was taken away from the circuit court in 1822 and given to the Supreme Court. Five years later, the laws giving equity jurisdiction to the Supreme Court were appealed and two chancellors were appointed to hold such courts. The state was laid off in two chancery divisions -- the eastern and the western -- with one chancellor for each. The chancellors were declared to be chancellors for the state and were given the authority to interchange.
The circuit court and the chancery court, by the constitution of 1834, became distinct and separate courts and have so continued to the present.
While the circuit court of Davidson County has had an uninterrupted existence since 1810, the chancery court, as a separate entity, was not formed until 1846. Prior to that time, the chancery court for this district was held at Franklin in Williamson County.
Although the criminal court of Davidson County was created by the legislature in 1842, the court was presided over by the circuit judge until 1854. The first person to be appointed criminal court judge was W. B. Turner, who served for seven years.
The county managed with just one criminal court until 1920 when a second division was approved by the General Assembly. A third division followed in 1968. Frank M. Garard was the first judge to sit on the second court and Allen R. Cornelius, Jr., served for ten years as the first judge of the third court.
With modern-day crime statistics continuing to overload the courts at an increasing rate, a fourth division of criminal court was created to help meet the demand. That court convened in September, 1990 with Seth Norman on the bench.
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Following is a history of judges who have served Circuit and Probate courts in Davidson County: