By Jed McKeehan

When we think about appearing in or going to court in the US, and specifically in Tennessee, we typically think about appearing before a judge.  However, there are a wide range of actual titles given to the individuals who may be deciding your case.  Even though that person may not be officially called a, “judge,” let’s be honest, they will be passing judgment upon you.

Although this list is probably not exhaustive, here are some of the different judges you might find yourself in front of.

Magistrate – A magistrate on the state level is not an elected position, but a position to which someone is hired.  For example, in Knox County, there are a number of juvenile court magistrates.  They are hired by the elected juvenile judge to hear various types of cases.  They serve at the juvenile judge’s pleasure, but they make their own decisions and rulings on cases and those decisions are enforceable.  If someone appeals a magistrate’s decision, the first appeal would go to the juvenile judge.

Clerk and Master – Again, using Knox County as an example, the Clerk and Master in Knox County hears probate matters and essentially makes decisions on those cases.  Now, his decisions must be approved by the chancellor to whom that case is assigned, but for all intents and purposes, he is serving as a quasi-judge on those types of cases.

Special Master – A special master is typically an attorney who is asked to serve as a judge for the limited purpose of hearing a specific case.  Again, using Knox County as an example, the court that hears Orders of Protections will occasionally use Special Masters to hear Order of Protection cases simply to assist with the sheer volume of Order of Protection cases waiting to be heard by the court.

Arbitrator – An arbitrator is an attorney who is asked to serve as a judge for the limited purpose of hearing a specific case that has been removed from the legal system and sent to an agreed upon arbitration.  An arbitration is not an official court proceeding, but a proceeding that is similar to a trial and the decision of the arbitrator is binding on the parties.

Judicial Commissioner – A judicial commissioner does not normally preside over hearings but instead reviews warrants by law enforcement and decides whether to sign them.  They may also set bond amounts for individuals when they come in to custody.


Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox and surrounding counties. Visit for more information about this and other legal issues.