All data is current as of 2013, unless otherwise noted.
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How the right to counsel is administered and structured

State commission: yes – limited authority
Branch of government: judicial

The heads of the district defender offices in 30 of Tennessee’s 31 judicial districts (encompassing 95 counties) are popularly elected. These chief defenders are all elected for eight-year terms, except the chief public defender in Davidson County (Nashville) who is elected every four years. The chief defender in Shelby County (Memphis) is appointed by the county mayor.

The 31 district defenders cast a simple majority vote to elect the executive director of the Tennessee District Public Defender Conference (TDPDC) to a four-year term. TDPDC is an umbrella organization that carries out the policies determined by the district public defenders, coordinates training, and disseminates state funding to each of the 31 districts. To facilitate more efficient decision-making, the 31 district defenders annually elect by majority vote an executive committee that guides the day-to-day operations of the conference.


The trial courts manage the appointment and compensation of private attorneys when they are appointed in conflict and case overflow situations, and the state Administrative Office of the Courts pays them.

The Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender (OPCD) is a state agency in the judicial branch that represents death row inmates in state collateral proceedings. The agency also provides training and assistance to district defenders on death penalty cases. A nine-member Oversight Commission oversees the OPCD, and appointments to the commission are made by diverse authorities: Governor (2); Lieutenant Governor (2); Speaker of the House (2); and Supreme Court (3).

How the right to counsel is funded

Percentage of state funding: 89%
Percentage of local funding: 11% – Davidson, Knox, and Shelby counties only
Percentage of alternative funding: 0%

State funding for right to council services is disseminated to the districts through the Tennessee District Public Defender Conference (TDPDC).

The public defender offices in Shelby and Davidson counties both existed prior to the creation of the TDPDC, and the counties contribute a significant amount of funding to the operations of their respective offices. State funding for the public defender offices in Shelby and Davison counties is statutorily required to increase at the same percentage rate as the state funding increases to other districts.

The State of Tennessee funds prosecutors (called “district attorney generals”) throughout the state. Local jurisdictions may augment that state prosecution funding if they so choose, however Tennessee statutes require that any “increase in local funding for positions or office expense for the district attorney general shall be accompanied by an increase in funding of seventy-five percent (75%) of the increase in funding to the office of the public defender in such district for the purpose of indigent criminal defense.” Knox County (Knoxville) is one of the few jurisdictions that augments its state funding through the “75% rule.” More than a quarter of the budget of the Knox County Community Law Office is local funding.

The distribution of state funds to the 31 district defender offices is explained in this short 6AC video:

The methods used to provide public counsel

Each of Tennessee’s 31 judicial districts has a public defender office. Rules of the Tennessee Supreme Court require that the district public defender be appointed unless there is a conflict of interest or excessive workload.


In cases of conflict or excessive workload, the Tennessee Supreme Court Rules, Rule 13, provides for the qualifications, appointment, and compensation of private attorneys to provide right to counsel services. Each trial court maintains a list of attorneys to be appointed. Although extensive qualifications are required for lead and co-counsel in capital cases, there are no qualification requirements for the attorneys appointed to represent indigent defendants in non-capital cases. In short, discretion is left to the local courts about which lawyers are or are not qualified.

Appointed private attorneys can bill the court $40 per hour for out-of-court case preparation and $50 per hour for in-court work, though total compensation cannot exceed pre-set limits (e.g., the maximum an attorney can bill for a juvenile delinquency case is $1,000). The local judge is responsible for approving case-related expenses and for approving the voucher, and state Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) pays the attorney out of state funds.

The Tennessee Office of the Post-Conviction Defender, a state agency, represents all indigent death row inmates in state collateral proceedings.

Legal authority

Tennessee Constitution, art. I, § 9

Tennessee Code Annotated, §§ 8-14-101 through 8-14-401 (district public defenders and conference), and § 16-2-518 (75% rule), and §§ 40-30-201 through 40-30-210 (post-conviction)

Tennessee Supreme Court Rules, Rule 13 (qualifications, appointment, and compensation of attorneys)

Source of data: original research conducted by Sixth Amendment Center staff.