Maine: An Encyclopedia

History of the Court System of the State of Maine: 1636-1961 – Condensed

David Q. Whittier, Esq. for the
Maine State Archives, 1971*

Maine court history can be divided into four distinct periods:  Early Colonial, 1620-1677; Provincial, 1677-1780; District, 1780-1820; State, 1820-present.


The first court constituted by legal authority in what is now Maine sat in Saco, March 21, 1636. The court was composed of the deputy-governor of the area assisted by six commissioners. Prior to 1636 it is probable that some sort of court sat in the area and partial records from York County confirm this.

The original charter to the area contained no provisions for any form of government so the grantee, Sir Fernando Gorges, worked to get the king to grant the necessary powers to govern the jurisdiction. In 1639 Gorges efforts were successful and he proceeded to set up a government which legitimized the Court of Commissioners. One of the first acts of this general court was to divide the province into two parts at the Kennebunk River and to provide an inferior court to be held three times each year in each part of the province and a general court for the whole province to be held at Saco every June 25th.

To round out the earliest judicial organization, a series of commissioners, corresponding to justices of the peace or municipal trial justices, was established in each town. Their jurisdiction was limited in civil matters to causes where the amount in controversy was under forty schillings.

In 1643 a conflicting grant to the area was purchased by Sir Alexander Rigby who sent a deputy to conduct courts in Casco [not the current town by that name] and Scarborough for seven or eight years, in conflict with the courts established by Gorges. The struggle over ownership of the area raged for thirty-five years, during which time courts sat but were not always able to enforce their orders. In 1677 a settlement was arranged by which Massachusetts purchased Maine and the inhabitants of Maine recognized the authority of Massachusetts.


Maine had entered the hundred year period during which it was known as a province of Massachusetts. In September of 1676, the Duke of York transferred the county of Cornwall to the authority of Massachusetts and in 1691 Massachusetts became the governing body for the whole territory up to and including Nova Scotia.

In 1692 and 1697 Massachusetts attempted to revise the judicial system but the acts were disallowed by the English Privy Council.  An act in 1699 established the needed reforms by establishing a Court of General Sessions of the Peace to handle all criminal complaints and to meet twice a year at Wells and twice a year at York.

At the same time an inferior court of Common Pleas was established to handle all civil complaints. The appeal in both cases was to the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Goal [Jail] Delivery, which also dealt with with criminal matters. The Superior Court was held in York until September 9, 1703 when it was moved to Boston until the end of the Indian trouble. In 1704 the inferior courts were moved to York also because of Indian trouble.

The “Indian trouble” was due to Queen Anne’s War (1702-1713), the Second of four French and Indian wars. The French and their Abenaki Indian allies disrupted commerce on the Maine coast and attacked forts at Casco and Winter Harbor on the Saco River.

In 1713 there was a special session of the courts of Assize and General Goal delivery to deal with the backlog of capital cases. In 1735 the inferior courts and general sessions were moved to Falmouth, now Portland.

Pownalborough Court House, 23 Courthouse Road, in Dresden (2005)

Pownalborough Court House
23 Courthouse Road, Dresden (2005)

By an act of June 21, 1760, Chapter 7, effective November 1, 1760, two new counties were created, Cumberland and Lincoln. The shire town (county seat) of Cumberland was Falmouth, where the courts were held. Cumberland had a Court of General Sessions, Inferior Court of Common Pleas that met twice a year, and a Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Goal Delivery that met once a year in June. Lincoln county held its courts at Pownalborough but it had no Superior Court. Appeals had to go to Falmouth. In 1761 the courts for York county that had been held in Falmouth were moved to Biddeford.


Massachusetts adopted a Constitution in 1780 and with it came a new court structure. The new constitution provided for the General Court (legislative assembly) to establish such courts as should be needed. In 1782 the Supreme Judicial Court was established and given jurisdiction over all matters formerly assigned to the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Goal Delivery. The court met once a year after 1782 in York, Cumberland and Lincoln.

In 1789 two new counties were established, Hancock and Washington, and the court was to meet for these two counties at Pownalborough. In 1793 this court was moved to Wiscasset for Lincoln, Hancock and Washington. By 1797 the Clerks of the Courts of Common Pleas were to become clerks of the Supreme Judicial Court except for the counties of Lincoln, Hancock and Washington.

The Courts of Common Pleas and General Sessions of the Peace were established in 1782 for all the counties. There were three sessions in York; one at York, one at Waterborough (now Waterboro), and one at Biddeford; three sessions at Cumberland all of which met at Falmouth; three sessions at Lincoln, one at Hallowell, one at Pownalborough, and one at Waldoborough (now Waldoboro); and after 1789 there was one session at Hancock and one at Washington counties.


In 1819, the Constitution of the State of Maine was adopted. It provided for a Supreme Judicial Court and such inferior courts as the legislature should establish.

On June 24, 1820, the Supreme Judicial Court was established. It was comprised of a chief justice and two associate justices; any two of the three were sufficient to constitute “a Court.” The Court was granted jurisdiction over all pleas real, personal, and mixed; all civil actions between parties or between the State and citizens thereof; and overall appeals by writ of error, or otherwise, of all capital and other offenses of a public nature and every crime against the public good.

The establishing act also provided for the keeping of records and the reporting of decisions, transferred pending actions before the Court of Common Pleas in certain counties to the Supreme Judicial court, and set the terms of the Court for the first year and the year following.

On June 27, 1820, the Maine legislature reestablished the Court of Sessions, which was later to become the Court of Commissioners, and in 1831, County Commissioners Court. Prior to separation from Massachusetts, Maine had a Court of Sessions under the Massachusetts Court System. After statehood, the legislature reestablished the Court of Sessions within its own court system.

All business of the old court was assumed by the new Court of Sessions. The court was vested with all powers relative to the erection and repair of jails and other county buildings; allowances and settlements of county accounts; granting licenses; laying out, altering and discontinuing highways; laying and assessing taxes. The new court was to be composed of one chief justice and not more than four nor less than two associate justices. The terms of the court, in most counties, were held twice annually.

One of the duties carried over from the old Court of Sessions was the requirement that the it oversee the administration of county jails and keep track of the rules and regulations promulgated by the jailer. Jailers were required to keep track of the number of prisoners, their names and conditions, the work they did and the products they produced, and the total cost of materials furnished to the convict. All this information wag to be kept in a book and reported to the Court of Sessions periodically.

On the same day that the Court of Sessions was reestablished, the position of clerks of court was established. They were given custody and care of all court records and required to keep an account of all fees. They had to post a bond to insure that they would turn over all their records to their successors. The records were to be kept in a safe place, later to be provided for by the Court.

In 1821 the Court was authorized to provide compensation in the event of the taking of land for a new highway. If the owner of the property was dissatisfied with the award, he could appeal for a new jury.

Through a series of acts of the Maine legislature, the Supreme Judicial Court was given jurisdiction over cheating, digging up dead bodies, sodomy and bestiality, forgery and counterfeiting, arson, perjury and subornation of perjury, destroying vessels, murder, assault, dueling, and other crimes of violence, rape, lewd and lascivious cohabitation, gross lewdness, burglary, robbery, and treason. Some of the offenses were punishable by fines only, while others, in the Circuit Court of Common Pleas, involved jail terms. In many instances, the fine was to go to the town in which the offense was committed; some portion of the fine to go to the informer, if applicable and if he should sue to collect it.

On March 15, 1821, the office of Justice of the Peace was established with jurisdiction in civil matters not exceeding $20. Justices of the Peace were also given jurisdiction in all criminal cases where the fine did not exceed $5. They were also required to look into all other criminal matters.

Five years later, justices of the peace who planned to leave the state were required to turn over theirs records to the clerk of courts in the county for which the justice was commissioned. If a justice of the peace should die, his executor or administrator was required to turn over the records.

On March 20, 1821, Probate Courts were established with provisions for judges and registers of probate. Appeals from the Probate Court were to go to the Supreme Judicial Court.

On February 4, 1822, the Court of Common Pleas was established, providing that there should be three justices, any one of whom could hold court. One of the three was to be designated the chief justice. The Court had exclusive jurisdiction over all civil actions, except those which the just1ces of the peace or the Supreme Judicial Court had original jurisdiction, and those actions in replevin (recovery of property), trespass, ejectment (a suit to remove a person occupying real estate unlawfully). Common Pleas also had jurisdiction over all crimes and misdemeanors that the old Massachusetts Common Pleas Court dealt with, and over all appeals from the justices of the peace. In all cases, appeals from the Court of Common Pleas went to the Supreme Judicial Court.

By an act of February 22, 1825, the first municipal court of the new state of Maine was established at Portland. There had been municipal judges and justices of the peace prior, but now there was an officially designated municipal court. The act, which took effect on June 1st, provided that the judges of the municipal court be appointed by the governor.

In the 1830’s, as populations grew and new counties established, courts where moved, added, or discontinued:

1833 – the courts for York County were moved from York to Alfred, where they remain.
1834 – an additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court was established in Waldo County; a municipal court was established at Bath.
1835 – a municipal court was established at Hallowell.
1837 – a municipal court was established at Augusta.
1838 – Franklin and Piscataquis counties were established, with Farmington and Dover as their respective county seats.  Each was supplied with two terms of the Court of Common Pleas, and one term of the Supreme Judicial Court.

In 1839, the Courts of Common Pleas were abolished and a District Court system was established. The jurisdiction and terms remained the same.

In 1844, town courts were established in every city, town, or plantation in the state. They consisted of one justice for any town having 500 persons and two justices for any town having 2,000 persons. The justices, meeting monthly, were to have the same powers as a justice of the peace. Despite the new town court system, there remained municipal or police judges in Portland and Bangor.

Municipal courts were established in 1849 at Saco and East Thomaston (whose name was change to Rockland in 1850), Brunswick in 1850; and Turner in 1852. Terms of various county courts were often adjusted, added or abolished during the 1850s.

On April 9, 1852, the 1839 District Court system was abolished and all powers and duties were given to the Supreme Judicial Court. The state remained divided into three judicial districts: Western, consisting of York, Cumberland, Oxford, and Franklin counties; Middle, consisting of Lincoln, Kennebec, Somerset, and Waldo counties; and Eastern, consisting of Piscataquis, Penobscot, Hancock, Washington, and Aroostook counties. In order to handle the increased load, the Supreme Judicial Court was increased from 4 to 7 justices.

On March 18, 1854, the County of Androscoggin was established and made part of the Western Judicial District. By popular vote, Auburn became its shire town.

On April 4, 1854, the County of Sagadahoc was established and made part of the Middle Judicial District.  By vote of its population, Bath became its shire town. Sagadahoc was made part of the Middle Judicial District. On March 9, 1860, Knox County was established with its shire town at Rockland and became a part the Middle Judicial District.

Three terms of the Supreme Judicial Court were provided to each of the new counties.

In 1855:

The law terms (that is, sitting as the Law Court) of the Supreme Judicial Court were changed so that there would be two law terms at Augusta in the Middle Judicial District. (The Law Court decides the meaning of laws where there is controversy, and determines whether certain laws, when challenged, are constitutional or not.) At the first term, any matter pending in any county could be heard. The second term was to be only for matters pending in the Middle District. One law term was to be held at Portland for the Western Judicial District and one at Bangor for the Eastern Judicial District.

A municipal court was established in the town of Biddeford. The municipal court was abolished in Portland and in its place, a police court was established, only to reversed the next year. The police court in Bangor was abolished and a municipal court was established in its place, only to be reversed the following year.

To add to the chaos of court comings and goings, in 1856 all town courts were abolished!

The shire town of Somerset County was changed from Norridgewock to Skowhegan in 1865; the county court followed in 1872.

A fire in Portland on July 4, 1866 destroyed the probate records of Cumberland County; an 1867 act made provisions for the restoration of the those records.

Effective March 1, 1868, a Superior Court was established in Cumberland County. Jurisdiction was limited to civil matters not exceeding $500 in value.

In 1870 an additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County was established to be held annually at Paris. In 1876, it was moved to Fryeburg, but in 1885 another term was added in Paris. Over the next two decades county courts were established and disestablished, terms were added and removed.

An 1899 act authorized women to be admitted as attorneys to practice law in the courts of Maine.

In 1901 a legislative act fixed the terms of the Law Court. The members of the Supreme Court, when deciding questions of law and equity, are acting as the Law Court for the whole state.

In 1961 a District Court for the State of Maine was established. The State was divided into 33 judicial divisions.  The judicial divisions were organized into 13 districts. The District Courts were given the civil and criminal jurisdiction exercised by all trial justices and municipal courts in the State. They also had original jurisdiction, concurrent with that of the Superior court, of all civil actions in which neither damages in excess of $1,200 nor equitable relief is demanded, of actions for divorce or annulment of marriage, and of certain actions for separation.

The Governor, with the advice and consent of the Executive Council (abolished in 1975), was empowered to appoint to the District Court 2 judges at large and 14 judges to preside in specific districts. Each district was authorized at least one judge; District 9 was authorized two judges. The judges’ term of office was seven years, with an annual salary of $12,000. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court was empowered to designate one of the judges as Chief Judge.

For additional and more recent court history see Courts, Judicial Department.

See the full Whittier history, less footnotes and lists of court terms.

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Source: Whittier, David Q. HISTORY OF THE COURT SYSTEM OF THE STATE OF MAINE. Augusta, Me. 1971. Maine State Archives.

While no substantive changes have been made, the text has been condensed, footnotes have been omitted, obvious typographic errors corrected, and long paragraphs split for easier reading.  Minor changes in court terms and locations have been omitted. See original version, minus the footnotes.  The full document with footnotes is at the Maine State Archives.

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This entry was last modified: December 25, 2013 03:08 AM

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