Supreme Court Upholds Local Rule Requiring Bail Bonding Companies to Have Agents Present at Court Appearances

April 6, 2020

The Tennessee Supreme Court today upheld a local rule of court requiring bail bonding companies to have an agent present at court appearances of defendants for whom the bail bonding company serves as surety.

The case arose in Van Buren County, Tennessee, part of the 31st Judicial District of Tennessee.  Cumberland Bail Bonding (“Cumberland”) served as surety for two defendants who were scheduled to appear in the circuit court in the county.  Cumberland was subject to 31st Judicial District Local Rule 26.05(B), which states: “A bonding company shall notify the defendant/principal of each court appearance.  An agent of the bonding company shall be present for the defendant’s court appearance.”

When Cumberland’s two defendants failed to appear on September 25, 2017, and Cumberland also failed to have an agent present at their court appearance, the circuit court concluded that Cumberland had violated Local Rule 26.05(B) and suspended Cumberland from “writing any additional bonds” pending a hearing.  Cumberland filed a motion for reinstatement, but after a hearing, the circuit court denied the motion and ruled that Cumberland “shall remain suspended in Van Buren County.”

Cumberland appealed.  In the Court of Criminal Appeals, Cumberland conceded that it violated Local Rule 26.05(B) but asserted that the local rule is inconsistent with Tennessee statutes and is arbitrary and capricious.  The Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the first part of Local Rule 26.05(B) requiring a bonding company to give notice to a defendant of an upcoming court appearance, describing it as “sound,” but the intermediate appellate court ruled that the part of the local rule requiring an agent of the bonding company to attend all court appearances is “arbitrary, capricious, and illegal.”

The Tennessee Supreme Court granted the State permission to appeal, reversed the judgment of the Court of Criminal Appeals, and reinstated the trial court’s judgment.  The Supreme Court emphasized that trial courts have authority to adopt local rules addressing any topic so long as local rules do not conflict with statutes or Supreme Court rules.  The Supreme Court determined that Local Rule 26.05(B) does not conflict because no statute or rule addresses whether an agent of a bonding company must attend court appearances.  The Supreme Court also ruled that statutes enumerating grounds for suspending bonding companies are expressly supplemental to other law, including Tennessee decisions recognizing the inherent authority of trial courts to regulate bonding companies.  Under these decisions, the Supreme Court pointed out, a local rule regulating bonding companies should be upheld unless it is arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable.  The Supreme Court concluded that Local Rule 26.05(B) is not arbitrary, capricious, or unreasonable and that the trial court did not err by suspending the bond company for violating it.

To read the unanimous opinion of In re Cumberland Bail Bonding, authored by Justice Cornelia A. Clark, go to the opinions section of TNCourts.gov