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At a Glance (as of 2013)

Percentage of state funding: 89%
Percentage of local funding: 11% – Davidson, Knox and Shelby counties only
Percentage of alternative funding: 0%
State commission: yes – limited authority
Branch of government: judicial


Structure & Funding of Indigent Defense Services

The Tennessee District Public Defender Conference (TD­PDC) is a state funded umbrella organization that coordinates training, provides assistance, and disseminates state funding to each of the state’s 31 judicial districts (encompassing 95 counties). With the exception of Shelby County (Memphis), whose chief defender is appointed by the county mayor, the heads of each of the remaining 30 district defender offices are popularly elect­ed.  All serve eight-year terms, except the chief public defender in Davidson County (Nashville) who is elected every four years.

Under Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-14-402, the 31 district defenders vote to elect the executive director of TDPDC to a four-year term by simple majority vote. It may be tempting to think of the TDPDC executive director as analogous to a statewide chief public defender in another state, but that would be incorrect. The TDPDC executive director carries out policies as determined by the district public defenders. To facilitate more efficient decision-making, the 31 district defenders annually elect an executive committee that runs the day-to-day operation of the Conference through the executive director. Similar to the election of the TDPDC executive director, the election of the executive committee and policy positions (including budget) are determined by majority vote of the district defenders. The executive director then presents and defends TDPDC’s budget at the state level. All TDPDC funding comes from a state appropriation.


However, because the public defender offices in Shelby and Davidson counties predated the creation of TDPDC, state funding for those offices is statutorily required to increase at the same percentage rate as the state-funding increases given to TDPDC (though a significant amount of funding for these two offices remains county-based).

Additionally, although the State of Tennessee funds prosecutors throughout the state (called “district attorney generals”), local jurisdictions may augment that state prosecution funding if they so choose. However, Tenn. Code Ann. § 16-2-518 requires 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 in the Tennessee 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.

Tennessee Supreme Court Rule 13 establishes the rules for the appointment, qualification and payment of attorneys in those cases where the public defender has a conflict of interest. Tenn Sup. Ct. Rule 13(1)(e)(4)(A-D) directs the court to appoint the district public defender unless there is a conflict of interest or unless the district defender “makes a clear and convincing showing that adding the appointment to counsel’s current workload would prevent counsel from rendering effective representation in accordance with constitutional and professional standards.”  Tenn. Sup. Ct. Rule 13(1)(b) directs each trial court to “maintain a roster of attorneys from which appointments will be made.” Although the court rule lists extensive qualifications for lead and co-counsel in capital cases, there are no qualification parameters set out for the trial-level representation of adults and juveniles in non-capital cases. In short, discretion is left to the local courts about which lawyers are or are not qualified.

The same court rule delineates how such attorneys will be compensated. 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). Though the local judge is responsible for approving the voucher – and for approving case-related expenses – the state Administrative Office of Courts (AOC) pays the attorney out of state funds.

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

Statutory Authority

Tenn. Code Ann. § 8-14-201 through § 8-14-501 (Tennessee District Defender Conference); Tenn. Code Ann. § 40-30-201 through 40-30-201 (post-conviction). Additional public defense procedures are required under Tenn. Sup. Ct. Rule 13

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