Maine: An Encyclopedia
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Courts, Judicial Department

Pownalborough Courthouse, Dresden (2000)

Pownalborough Courthouse, Dresden (2000)

The 1761 Pownalborough Courthouse was the first built in Maine and the only one built prior to the Revolution. It was part of the Massachusetts court system, from which Maine separated in 1820.

For details of early court history in Maine, see the article History of the Court System of the State of Maine: 1636-1961.

The purpose of the Judicial Department, established in 1820, is to administer the State courts within that Department. The court system consists of the Supreme Judicial Court, the Superior Courts and the District Courts.

District Court at West Bath (2002)

District Court at West Bath (2002)

District Court at Caribou (2003)

District Court at Caribou (2003)

The District Courts deal mainly with minor criminal matters and civil offenses, such as traffic infractions, divorces, disputes between people about debts, land boundaries, and similar matters; Superior Courts (in 17 courthouses around the state) handle more serious criminal matters and some civil cases; the Supreme Court, or “Law Court” hears appeals and decides issues involving constitutional interpretation.

Maine Court History

In 1820, the new Maine Constitution established the judicial branch of government, stating, “The judicial power of the State be vested in a Supreme Judicial Court, and such other courts as the Legislature shall from time to time establish.”

From the start of statehood, the Supreme Judicial court was both a trial and an appellate court or “Law Court.” The new State of Maine also adopted the same lower court structure as existed in Massachusetts, and the court system remained unchanged until 1852. The Probate courts were created in 1820 as county-based courts and have remained so.

The Court Reorganization Act of 1852 increased the jurisdiction of the Supreme Judicial Court to include virtually every type of case, increased the number of justices and authorized the justices to travel in circuits.

Lincoln County Courthouse, Wiscassett (2001)

Lincoln County Courthouse, Wiscassett (2001)

Sagadahoc County Courthouse, Bath (2000)

Sagadahoc County Courthouse, Bath (2000)

In 1929, the Legislature created the statewide Superior Court to relieve the overburdened Supreme Judicial Court. The lower courts continued to operate much as always.  In 1961, the municipal courts and the trial justices system was abolished and the new statewide District Court was created. This made Maine’s court system one of the most unified in the nation, putting all courts except the Probate system under Statewide administration.

In 1978 Administrative Court was created to hear appeals from state agency administrative decisions. In 2001, it was abolished and was blended into the District Court system.

In the 1990s, a number of specialized divisions were created within the Maine Court system, including the Family Division of the District Court, the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court Program, and the Adult Drug Court Program.

Aroostook County Courthouse, Houlton (2005)

Aroostook County Courthouse, Houlton (2005)

Effective January 1, 2001, the Legislature further “unified” the courts, and reassigned caseloads among the courts, making District Court the only place where divorce and family cases may be filed; providing for the direct filing of appeals to Law Court from District Court, reducing the appellate function of the Superior Court, and eliminating the previous cap of $30,000 in damages for civil suits filed in District Court.

District Court at Lewiston (2003)

District Court at Lewiston (2003)

The Lewiston District Court was located downtown specifically as a conscious act by the state to combat “sprawl” and to revitalize the area.

Maine is a relatively “clean” state in terms of corruption and general accountability of its public officials. However, the State court system ranks near the bottom according to a study of judicial accountability released in 2008.

Additional resources

Commission to Study the Future of Maine’s Courts. Commission to Study the Future of Maine’s Courts preliminary recommendations: revised following meeting of September 25, 1992. Augusta? The Commission. 1992.

Maine Judicial Branch.  http://www.courts.state.me.us/

Case Files (of the County, District, and Municipal courts) [Maine State Archives]

Citizen’s Guide to the Courts. http://www.courts.state.me.us/citizen_info/citizen_guide/index.html

Sloane, Robert K. The Courthouses of Maine. Woolwich, Me. Maine Lawyers Review. 1998.

Willis, William, 1794-1870. A History of the Law: the courts, and the lawyers of Maine, from its first colonization to the early part of the present century. Portland, Me. Bailey & Noyes. 1863.

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