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Published November 3, 2021

Preface: Closing County Courthouses & Offices

Closing County Courthouses & OfficesMACo is consistently asked whether or not County Courthouses and County offices may be closed on the Friday after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, or any other day not specified as a legal holiday in state statute. For all County offices headed by elected officials, with the notable exception of the County Commissioners’ office, the answer is No. However, County offices and operations not enumerated in MCA 7-4-2211 (i.e.; the Commissioners’ office and various departments) may be closed. Further explanation follows.

Offices That Must Remain Open

With regard to the County offices headed by elected officials, MCA 7-4-2211(2) provides:

(2)(a) The sheriff, the county clerk, the clerk of the district court, the treasurer, the county attorney, the county auditor in counties in which that officer is maintained, and the county assessor shall keep their offices open for the transaction of business during the office hours determined by the governing body by resolution after a public hearing and only if consented to by any affected elected county officer, every day in the year except legal holidays and Saturdays.

State legal holidays are established by MCA Section 1-1-216. It specifies the ten legal holidays (11 in general election years).  Apart from those days and weekends, the above statute clearly states that the enumerated offices must be open every day.

While Justices of the Peace are not enumerated in 7-4-2211 (2), their office hours are fixed at the time their salaries are set under 3-10-208, which provides, in part, that “… the county commis­sioners shall designate the office hours for each justice’s court.”

Because neither County Commissioners nor District Court Judges have the authority to declare a day a “legal holiday,” and neither the day after Thanksgiving nor Christmas Eve is a “legal holiday” by statute, the above-enumerated offices and the Justice Court must remain open for business on those days.

The failure to have the enumerated County offices and the office of the Justice of the Peace open during normal business hours on Christmas Eve may result in consequences in terms of liability. This is particularly true of offices involving the Clerk and Recorder’s Office and the Courts, where a failure to timely file or record documents can have serious legal conse­quences.  For example, if someone in the middle of a domestic dispute wants to file a restraining order on the Friday after Thanksgiving, he or she should not be deprived of that option because the Court was illegally closed.

This is not to say that the elected officials need to be personally present, or that leave cannot be granted generously to persons working in the office on Christmas Eve; but even if the District Judges give their staff the day off and indicate they won’t be in on the day before Christmas, the County cannot close the Courthouse, the enumerated offices, or the Justice Court.  The District Judges are state officers, and their staffs are state employees subject to the rules of the judicial branch.  Their actions will not protect you or relieve you of your duties under the law.

Offices & Operations That May Close

Other County offices and operations are not subject to the requirement of 7-4-2211 that the office be open for the conduct of business every day in the year except holidays and weekends.  Offices and operations outside this requirement include the County Commissioners’ office, and departments such as the County Road and Health Departments.  While these offices may be closed without violation of the law, the question of whether closure is appropriate is a question of policy to be determined on considerations that are unique to each operation and each County.

If every employee in a Department wishes to take leave and the operation is not critical to the County, the Department may be closed for one day.  The difficulty arises if one or a few employees do not wish to take leave, but their presence is insufficient to make the workplace productive or safe.  In that case, best practice is to leave the office open and sufficiently staffed.

What if the Federal Government Declares a Holiday?

It is not a state holiday and county offices should be open. In the past couple of years, the federal government has declared that all executive departments and agencies of the Federal Government shall be closed, and their employees excused from duty on Christmas Eve. This does not pertain to local government or its operations because it is a federal holiday not a state holiday.  State legal holidays are established by MCA 1-1-216.

If you have any employees that are covered by a Collective Bargaining Agreement, please consult with your Human Resource Office and/or County Attorney regarding whether additional pay is required for work performed a federal holiday.

McKenzie McCarthy  |  MACo General Counsel  |  mmccarthy@mtcounties.org  |  (406) 441-5485