Citing pre-Civil War law, Tennessee legislature wants to fine judges $500 who fail to open court, while Florida wants to repeal their almost identical statute

Most states continue to make use of “terms of court”, many referencing statutes that are as much as 200 years old, to bracket the individual segments of a judicial year. Two states are confronting how to handle the question of modernization of “terms of court”: Florida wants them repealed; Tennessee wants judges to pay if they are missed.

Florida’s statutes 26.37 through 26.40 trace back at least as far as 1849 (just after the state jointed the Union) and lay out the expectations for (in this case Circuit Court) judges: they are to attend the first day of their “term” unless sick or stopped by “providential causes.” Terms are to be held at least twice a year in each county, but other statutes dating back to at least 1879 specify by name 3 terms or more by statute (Spring, Fall, and Winter terms, in this example for the First Judicial Circuit).

Under 26.37, failure to attend the opening day of a new term would result in $100 being deducted from the judge’s salary for every day missed.

Under HB 7017 and SB 746, all references to terms of court would be eliminated from statutes that currently have them. The Supreme Court could re-establish them, let the lower courts create their own, or simply end the practice altogether. This is the third year in a row Florida’s tried to end the use of “terms of court”; they have usually failed because of they were attached to another more controversial bill, or because controversial aspects were added to them.

  • HB 7031 / SB 2276 (2010) Approved by full House, died in Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • HB 1379 (2011) Also included references to pretrial release programs. Died on House floor.
  • HB 7023 (2011) Died on House floor.
  • SB 1398 (2011) Also included references to conduct of lineups. Approved by full Senate. Died on House floor.
  • HB 631 (2012) Approved by full House. Died in Senate Judiciary Committee.
  • SB 462 (2012) Died on Senate floor.

Tennessee’s legislature is considering something quite the opposite. Not only with terms of court remain in their statutes, but judges could be fined if they missed their term. Tennessee Code 17-1-202 is similar to Florida’s 26.37 and dates back nearly as far (1853/1854 vs. Florida’s 1849): judges must open their court on the first day the term starts or within 3 days thereafter; failure to do so currently costs the judge $100. Under HB 1124 and SB 1056 the penalty would be increased to $500. Interestingly, this appears to be the first time in decades there has been an attempt to amend this law.