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Maine Court History

Summary History of Courts in Maine

Justice in Maine during the two centuries that preceded Statehood in 1820 was administered by courts held between 1639 and 1677 when part of the present State existed as an independent province under the Gorges Patent granted by Charles I; from 1677 to 1780 while it was governed as a province of Massachusetts; and from 1780 to 1820 when it was administered by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as the District of Maine.

The earliest court in Maine was the Commissioners Court, composed of a Deputy Commissioner and six Associates, which was established under the Gorges Patent at Saco on March 21, 1636. The court was reconstituted in 1639, under a confirmation of the patent, as a Council consisting of a Deputy Governor and six Councilors, with executive, legislative and judicial powers. In 1652, the Colony of Massachusetts Bay claimed part of Maine under its charter; and pursued the claim until 1677 when it obtained a release of the Gorges interest in the Province of Maine which became a province of Massachusetts.

A new charter was granted by the crown in 1691 which united the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies, the Province of Maine and Nova Scotia as the Province of Massachusetts Bay in New England. The charter established a Superior Court of Judicature, composed of a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices, as the highest court in Massachusetts.

The Province of Maine constituted the County of York until 1760 when Cumberland County and Lincoln County were incorporated by the Massachusetts General Court. No term of court was held in Maine under the Massachusetts charter until 1699 when one was authorized and operated in Kittery until 1743 when it was relocated to York.

The Superior Court of Judicature was changed to the Supreme Judicial Court under the Constitution that Massachusetts adopted in 1780, though the court was otherwise continued as it was previously constituted with a Chief Justice and four Associate Justices. The Court held sessions in every county for jury trials and law matters from 1780 to 1800.

In 1805, the nisi prius system was adopted in Massachusetts so that jury terms were held by single justices rather than by the full court. Law terms, under the new practice, were held by not fewer than three justices of the court.

Court of Common Pleas

The Circuit Court of Common Pleas, which existed in Massachusetts for the trial of jury cases, was continued under the Act of Separation and Constitution of Maine until 1822. Then the Legislature created a Court of Common Pleas, consisting of a Chief Justice and two Associate Justices, as a court of inferior jurisdiction, to hold jury terms throughout the State. Questions of law and appeals from the Court of Common Pleas were subject to review by the Supreme Judicial Court. The Court of Common Pleas was abolished by the Legislature in 1839 which established a District Court.

District and Superior Courts

In 1839, the State was divided into three Districts with two Judges assigned to the Western District and one each to the Eastern and Middle Districts. The District Court was abolished by the Legislature in 1852 which transferred its jurisdiction to the Supreme Judicial Court. (A new District Court System was established in 1961; see below.)

Nisi prius and law work was performed by the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court until 1868 when the Superior Court for Cumberland County was established by the Legislature, followed in 1878 by the creation of the Superior Court for Kennebec County; by the Superior for Androscoggin County in 1917, and the Superior Court for Penobscot County in 1919. A Superior Court for Aroostook County, established by the Legislature in 1885, was abolished in 1893. Each of these Courts shared jurisdiction with the Supreme Judicial Court which continued to ride circuit until 1929 when the Legislature established the Superior Court as the trial court of general jurisdiction for the State. The Superior Court, as presently constituted, has original jurisdiction over all matters not within the jurisdiction of the Supreme Judicial Court sitting as the Law Court or within the exclusive jurisdiction of the District Court. The Superior Court hears appeals from the District Court in criminal, juvenile and divorce matters, as well as appeals from decisions of the Administrative Court. Sessions of the Superior Court are held by the Justices of the Court in each of the counties of the State as assigned by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.

The District Court was created by the Legislature in 1961 to replace the inferior courts then existing in the State which consisted of fifty Municipal or Police Courts, each with a Judge and a Recorder or Associate Judge, and twenty-four Trial Justice Courts conducted by laymen on a part-time basis. Each of these inferior courts had been created, as had the first which were established in Portland, Bath and Bangor in 1825, by special acts of the Legislature which were adopted with little regard as to uniformity in jurisdiction and procedure or their accountability to a responsible head of those that were established. The District Court has original jurisdiction in non-felony criminal cases and in those cases involving a violation of a local ordinance; and may conduct probable cause hearings and accept guilty pleas in felony cases. The Court has concurrent jurisdiction with the Superior Court in civil actions which the damages or relief sought does not exceed a specified amount; and functions as the small claims and juvenile courts of the State. Trials in misdemeanor cases are appealed to the Superior Court since the District Court is not a jury court. The District Court is composed of thirteen districts and thirty-one judicial divisions or locations where court is held. The Judges of the District Court consist of the Chief Judge, six Judges at large who serve throughout the State and fifteen Judges assigned to the thirteen districts of the court. The Chief Judge is directly responsible to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court for the proper administration of the District Court.

Maine Supreme Court

The present Supreme Judicial Court of Maine was established under Article VI of the Constitution adopted by the Constitutional Convention which met at Portland on October 11, 1819 to frame a constitution for Maine. The article was implemented at the first session of the Legislature in 1820 which enacted "AN ACT establishing a Supreme Judicial Court within the State," approved June 24, 1820. The law provided for a court composed of three members, a Chief Justice and two Associate Justices, to hold office during life or good behavior but not beyond the age of seventy years.
The court, as established, had original, concurrent or appellate jurisdiction of all causes, civil or criminal, and supervisory power over all inferior courts. On July 1, 1820, Prentiss Mellen of Portland was appointed as Chief Justice, and William Pitt Preble of Portland and Nathan Weston, Jr. of Augusta, were appointed as Associate Justices. The First term of the Supreme Judicial Court was held at York on August 8, 1820. The Court sat both as a nisi prius and as a law court consistent with the earlier practice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts.

The tenure of the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court was reduced to seven years or good behavior under a constitutional amendment which became effective in 1840. The membership of the Court continued unchanged until 1847 when it was increased by the Legislature to four. Terms of the Supreme Judicial Court were held by the full court at least once a year in each of the counties for jury and law cases, though certain terms might be held by a single Justice for jury trials. Questions of law were continued from such terms to be considered by the full Court when it returned to sit in the county. The number of Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court was increased during the reorganization of the court system in 1852 from four to seven. The practice of single justices holding nisi prius terms in all the counties was instituted in 1852 with law terms held by the full court.

The number of Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court was increased from seven to eight by the Legislature in 1855. The Court was divided into two divisions of four members each, one constituting the Law Court, to have jurisdiction over questions of law and equity and capital cases, and to hold four terms a year; the other, to hold nisi prius terms only and to have no part in the law work of the Court. The divisions of the Court were abolished by the Legislature in 1856 which reduced the number of Justices to seven after a vacancy, and directed that the Law Court should be held by a majority of the Justices. The act provided that opinions of the Law Court were to be concurred in by at least four of the Justices. The number of Justices was restored to eight in 1857 where it remained until 1879 when it was reduced by the Legislature to seven when a vacancy should occur. The number was restored to eight in 1880 where it remained until the general reorganization of the court system in 1929 when it was reduced to six.

The Present membership of the Court, consisting of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices, was established by the Legislature in 1975. The Supreme Judicial Court, as presently constituted, has general administrative and supervisory authority over the Judicial Department; and has jurisdiction under the Constitution to apportion the Legislature should it fail to make the apportionment. Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court are obliged to give their opinion upon important questions of law, and upon solemn occasions, when required by the Governor, Senate or House of Representatives.

The Supreme Judicial Court, as the Law Court, is the court of final appeal in the State. Three members of the Supreme Judicial Court serve as the appellate Division for the Review of sentences. Justices of the court may sit in the Superior Court to hear non-jury civil actions, except divorce or annulments of marriage; and have jurisdiction over post conviction habeas corpus, admissions to the bar and bar disciplinary proceeding. The number, time and places of the terms of the Supreme Judicial Court are determined by the court.