Maine Judiciary

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The Maine Judicial Branch consists of the Supreme Judicial Court, the trial courts and the Administrative Office of the Courts. Judges are nominated by the Governor to serve seven year terms and confirmed by the legislature. (Probate judges are an exception. They are elected to four year terms by the voters of each county).

The Supreme Judicial Court, has general administrative and supervisory authority over the Judicial Branch. Its head, the Chief Justice, designates a Superior Court Chief Justice and District Court Chief Judge to oversee the day-to-day administrative operations of those courts, and also appoints the State Court Administrator, who runs the Administrative Office of the Courts. In addition, the Chief Justice takes an active hand in designing and administering procedures aimed at the speedy and just resolution of cases in the trial courts. [1]

Contents

County Courts

Probate Courts, established in the Maine Constitution in 1820, are courts with jurisdiction over specialized subject matter, such as estates and trusts, adoptions and name changes, guardianship, and protective proceedings. These courts also sit without a jury. There are 16 Probate Courts and judges, one for each county. These judges, who are part-time, are elected. Probate Court decisions may be appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court on matters of law. The Probate Court is not under the state court system but under county jurisdiction.

Trial Courts

District Court

The District Court system was created by the Legislature in 1961. The District Court has 33 judges who hold court in 13 districts at many locations throughout Maine. This court hears civil, criminal and family matters and always sits without a jury. Civil suits claiming monetary damages, domestic relations cases (divorces, separations, custody, and property disputes), and involuntary commitments are examples of civil cases. There is also established within the District Court a Family Division that has jurisdiction over family matters in the District Court. There are 8 Family Law Magistrates who work in the Family Division.

A plaintiff who has a right to trial by jury in a civil action waives the right by bringing the action in District Court; a defendant with a right to a civil jury may remove the action to a Superior Court for jury trial.

The court also tries cases involving civil violations and Class D and E criminal offenses when the defendant waives the right to a jury trial. In addition, the court hears all juvenile matters and traffic infraction cases.

Most decisions of the District Court may be appealed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court, except for small claims and forcible entry and detainer cases.

In Maine, the small claims court is a special session of the District Court held in each district on certain days determined by the Chief Judge of the District Court. In small claims court, the procedure is simplified, hearings are informal, and parties generally appear without attorneys. Small claims proceedings are appropriate only when the amount in controversy, not including interest and costs, is not more than $4,500. Appeals from small claims judgments may be taken to the Superior Court. A defendant who appeals, and who has a right to a jury trial, may have a trial de novo (a complete retrial) before a Superior Court jury.


The Superior Court

The Superior Court consists of 16 justices who hold court at regular intervals in each of Maine's 16 counties. Except for family matters, juvenile cases, and civil violations, the Superior Court may hear almost any kind of civil or criminal case that may be brought to trial. Since the Superior Court is the only court that uses juries, it hears all murder and Class A, B, and C criminal cases, as well as those Class D and E cases in which the defendant asks for a jury trial.

In civil actions both the Superior Court and the District Court have jurisdiction in cases seeking money damages. This means that, in such cases, the plaintiff can choose between District and Superior Court. If the plaintiff wishes to exercise a right to jury trial or prefers the location or some other feature of the Superior Court, the case may be brought in that court. There are also some actions where the plaintiff seeks something other than a simple money judgment, for example, an injunction. Many of these actions may only be brought in Superior Court.

The Superior Court also hears appeals from state and local administrative agencies.

Appeals from the Superior Court may be taken to the Supreme Judicial Court. [2]

Supreme Judicial Court

The Supreme Judicial Court, established in 1820 when Maine separated from Massachusetts, is the State's highest court and the court of final appeal. It has seven justices, presided over by the Chief Justice, the head of the Judicial Branch.

The Court's major job is to decide appeals on questions of law that arise in civil actions and criminal trials. Questions of law are presented to the Court when a case is appealed from a trial court. Parties or their lawyers present written briefs and oral arguments outlining their respective positions. The justices reflect on the questions presented and issue a written opinion deciding the issues in accordance with the Court's view of the law and reversing or affirming the lower court's decision or a brief memorandum of decision briefly describing the outcome in a particular case. Memoranda of decision are not published. Opinions are published and become binding on all the Maine courts when they adjudicate similar disputes. Published opinions are available on this web site or may be found in bound form in the Maine Reporter. In its appellate capacity (as interpreter of the laws), the Court is called the Law Court.

The Court has several other jobs. An appellate division of the Court hears appeals from criminal sentences when the penalty is one year or more of incarceration. The justices may issue advisory opinions to the Governor or Legislature on legal issues of high public importance. The Court is also responsible for overseeing admission to the Bar and the conduct and discipline of lawyers and judges. Finally, the Court is the procedural rulemaking authority for all of the state's courts. [3]

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