HISTORY OF The COURT SYSTEM OF THE STATE OF MAINE
David Q. Whittier, Esq. for the
Maine State Archives, 1971*
This is the long version, verbatim except for footnotes.
A condensed version is also available.
Maine court history can effectively be broken down into four distinct periods that may be designated as Early Colonial, 1620-1677; Provincial, 1677-1780; District, 1780-1820; State, 1820-present.
The first court constituted by legal authority to sit 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 had contained no provisions for any form of government so the grantee, Sir Fernando Gorges, had continued to try 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 commissions of 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 general court for the whole province to be held at Saco every June 25.
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 and 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 the area to conduct courts in Casco and Scarboro for seven or eight years in conflict with the courts established by Gorges. The conflict over ownership of the area raged for some 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 11assachusetts. 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 Privy Council. In 1699 an act was passed which finally established the needed reforms. The Act of 1699 established 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 meet at the same time and to handle all civil complaints. The appeal in both cases was to the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Goal Delivery. 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.
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.
November 1. 1760 two new counties were created, Cumberland and Lincoln. The shire town of Cumberland was Falmouth and that is 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 the Constitution came a new court structure. The courts remained as they were until the legislature got around to changing them but changes were made that improved the court structure. The new constitution provided for the General Court to establish such courts as should be needed. In 1782 the Supreme Judicial Court was established and given jurisdiction over all matters formerly cognizable by 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. 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, 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; and after 1789 there was one session at Hancock and one at Washington.
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 from time to time 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 Supreme Judicial 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 granted some additional powers, 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 established the terms of the Court for the first year and the year following.
On June 27, 1820, the legislature re-established the Court of Sessions, which was later to become the Court of Commissioners. (Prior to its separation from Massachusetts, Maine had had a Court of Sessions under the Massachusetts Court System. After Maine’s statehood, the legislature re-established 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 highway.; and 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 to the new court was the requirement that the court oversee the administration of the 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 re-established, the position of clerks of court was established. The clerks were given the custody and care of all court records and files and required to keep an account of all of the fees. The clerks were further required 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 which was later to be provided for by the Court of sessions.
The Court of Sessions was required to provide a safe place for the keeping of records. Also in 1821, the Court of Sessions 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, 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. It should be noted that it is not proper to talk of this jurisdiction in the usual felony – non felony designation. Some of these offenses were punishable by fines only, while others, in the Circuit Court of Common Pleas, were punishable by jail terms. In many instances in which a fine was indicated, 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 days later, 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. Court of Common pleas. (The Act of Separation had provided that all of the existing courts at the time of the Act, with the exception of the Supreme Judicial Court, should continue as they had been prior to the Act.) The act establishing the Court of Common Pleas provided that there should be three justices, anyone of whom could hold court. One of the three justices 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, trespass quare clausum fregit, ejectment, or real actions were concurrent jurisdiction with the Supreme Judicial Court existed. The Court of Common Pleas also had jurisdiction over all crimes and misdemeanors formerly cognizable by the Circuit Court of Common Pleas 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. In the beginning, three terms per year were held in the counties of York, Cumberland, Lincoln, Kennebec,Somerset, and Hancock. Oxford, Penobscot, and Washington counties has two terms per year.
An act was passed establishing an additional term for the Supreme Judicial Court and the Court of Common Pleas, in Oxford County. With the addition, the terms of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County were scheduled on the first Tuesday of January, by anyone or more of the justices, and on the fourth Tuesday of August, by all or any two of the justices, in each year. The terms of the court of Common Pleas, with the addition, were scheduled on the fourth Tuesday of January, second Tuesday of June and the fourth Tuesday of September, annually.
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, of course, justices of the peace prior to this time, but now there was an officially designated municipal court. The act provided that the judges of the municipal court be appointed by the governor. The act was to take effect June 1, 1825.
By statute, any justice of the peace who planned to leave the state was required to turn over his records to the clerk of courts, in the county for which the justice was commissioned, for safekeeping. If a justice of the peace should die, his executor or administrator was required to turn over the justice’s records to the clerk of courts.
The name of the Court of Sessions was changed to the County Commissioner’s Court. The new court was set up almost the same as its predecessor.
The courts for York County were moved from York to Alfred where they remain today.
One of the terms of the Court of Common Pleas for Waldo County was abolished.
An additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court was established in Waldo County. The new term was to be held annually at Belfast on the second Tuesday of December.
Effective June 1, 1834, a municipal court was established at Bath.
Effective March 16, 1835, a municipal court was established at Hallowell. (In 1837, Hallowell was given a chance to vote on the court by referendum. It is this writer’s feeling that the court was abolished by the referendum.)
Effective March 10, 1837, a municipal court was established at Augusta.
Franklin County was established with Farmington as the shiretown. The establishing act provided that there would be two terms of the Court of Common Pleas annually and one term of the Supreme Judicial court.
Piscataquis County was established with Dover as the shiretown. The establishing act provided that there would be two terms of the Court of Common Pleas annually and one term of the Supreme Judicial Court.
The Courts of Common Pleas were abolished and a District Court system was established. The jurisdiction of the new courts was the same as the old courts. The terms were also to be the same.
In 1844 town courts were established in every city, town, or plantation in the state. These courts consisted of one justice for any town having 500 persons and two justices for any town having 2,000 persons. The justices were to have the same powers as a justice of the peace. The new courts were to meet once each month. Despite the new town court system, there remained municipal or police judges in Portland and Bangor.
A municipal court was established at Saco. (This was repealed repealed three years later.)
A town court was established for the town of East Thomaston.
One term of the District Court of Aroostook County was abolished.
Municipal courts were established at Rockland and at Brunswick.
On April 9, 1852, the District Court system was abolished and all its 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.
A municipal court was established at Turner which was then in the County of Oxford.
The criminal terms of the Supreme Judicial Court held in Lincoln County69 and Kennebec County was abolished.
The County of Waldo was changed from the Middle Judicial District to the Eastern Judicial District.
On March 18, 1854, the County of Androscoggin was established. By vote of the population, Auburn became its shiretown. Androscoggin was made part of the Western Judicial District. Two terms of the Supreme Judicial Court were provided, with a third term to begin in 1855.
On April 4, 1854, the County of Sagadahoc was established. By vote of its population, Bath became its shire town. Sagadahoc was made part of the Middle Judicial District. Three terms of the Supreme Judicial Court were provided.
One term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Hancock County was abolished.
The January term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Franklin County was abolished.
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.
The law terms of the Supreme Judicial Court were changed so that there would be two law terms at Augusta in the Middle Judicial District. 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.
The police court in Bangor was abolished and a municipal court was established in its place. The new municipal court had a slighty larger jurisdiction.
The police court in Portland was abolished and a municipal court was established.
The municipal court in Bangor was abolished and a police court was established.
All of the town courts were abolished.
On March 9, 1860, Knox County was established with its shiretown at Rockland. The establishing act provided for three terms of the Supreme Judicial Court and three terms of the County Commissioner’s Court. The new county became a part the Middle Judicial District.
An additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court was established in Lincoln county.
February term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Knox County was abolished.
The shiretown of Somerset County was changed from Norridgewock to Skowhegan.
A fire in Portland on July 4, 1866 destroyed the probate records of Cumberland County.
An act was passed making provisions for the restoration of the probate records destroyed in the 1866 fire in Portland.
Provisions were made in several cases, such as a license to sell real estate, that no action could be taken on petitions granted prior to the fire. Interested persons could make voluntary provisions for restoring their instruments to the records.
Effective March 1, 1868, a Superior Court was established in Cumberland County. The court was scheduled to be held on the first Tuesday of each month, except June, July, and August. Jurisdiction was limited to civil matters not exceeding $500 in value; although, the court did not have jurisdiction over all civil actions.
An additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County was established. The new term was to be held annually at Paris, on the first Tuesday of December. (In 1876, changed to Fryeburg.)
An additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Knox County was established. The new term was to be held annually at Rockland, on the second Tuesday of December, for the transaction of civil and criminal business.90
In Somerset County, the place for holding the terms of the Supreme Judicial Court was changed from Norridgewock to Skowhegan.
The December term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County was changed from Paris to Fryeburg.
In Kennebec County, a Superior Court for Augusta was established. The terms were scheduled to be held on the first Tuesday of February and April, second Tuesday of June, and first Tuesday of September and December. Original and appellate jurisdiction in all criminal matters then vested in and exercised by the Supreme JUdicial court for Kennebec County was transferred to the new superior court.
The August term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Kennebec county was abolished. No criminal business was to be transacted in the Supreme Judicial Court in Kennebec County after the next October term.
The December term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County was abolished.
In Oxford County, an additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court was established. The new term was to be held at Paris on the first Tuesday of May, annually.
On March 4, 1885, a Superior Court for the county of Aroostook was established. The terms were to be held on the first Tuesdays of December and May at Caribou and on the first Tuesdays of November and April at Houlton. (This act was repealed in 1893.)
The February term of the Superior Court in Kennebec County was changed from Augusta to Watervillc. (This act was repealed a month later.)
An additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Hancock County was established at Ellsworth. The term was to be held on the third Tuesday of January; civil business only could be transacted.
The June term of the Superior Court in Kennebec County was changed from Augusta to Waterville. Also provisions were made for a term to be held at Waterville on the second Tuesday of November, annually, but only for the transaction of civil business. (This act repealed the stature passed a month previously changing the February term from Augusta to Waterville.)
Legislation was enacted which provided for the holding of the Court of Probate, once a year, at Fort Kent in Aroostook County. The time for holding said court was to be appointed by the judge. All acts and parts of acts requiring a Court of Probate to be held at Madawaska were repealed.
The act of 1885 establishing a Superior Court for Aroostook County was repealed. The court’s jurisdiction and all its powers were transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court.
An act was passed authorizing women to be admitted as attorneys to practice law in the courts of Maine.
The May term of the Supreme Judicial Court, at Paris, in Oxford County was abolished.
An act was passed fixing the time of holding the terms of the Law Court. For the purposes of the Law Court, the state constituted one judicial district. The sessions of the Supreme Judicial Court, as a law court, were to be held at Augusta on the second Tuesday of December, at Bangor on the first Tuesday of June, and at Portland on the fourth Tuesday of June, in each year. Meetings of all justices were to be held annually at Augusta and Portland during the law terms and all undecided questions of law and equity, previously submitted, were then to be decided.
On March 21, 1901, an act was passed fixing the terms of the Supreme Judicial Court in the counties of Franklin, Knox, Sagadahoc, Somerset, and York. [List of terms omitted]
The January (third Tuesday) term of the Supreme Judicial Court, at Ellsworth in Hancock County was abolished.
An additional term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County was established. The new term was to be held annually at Rumford Falls, in the town of Rumford, on the second Tuesday of May.
The May (first Tuesday) term of the Supreme Judicial Court, at Dover, in Piscataquis County was abolished.
The March term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Oxford County was abolished.
By an act of 1917, the trial terms of the Supreme Judicial Court were fixed [for each county; list omitted].
On April 7, 1917, a Superior Court was established in Androscoggin County at Auburn. The terms were scheduled with civil business on the first Tuesday of every month, except July, August, and September. Criminal business was to be transacted at the terms held on the first Tuesday of February, May, and October, together with the civil business.
On February 26, 1919, a Superior court was established in Penobscot County at Bangor. The terms were to be held on the first Tuesday of January, March, May, September, and November. The criminal business was to be transacted at the terms held on the first Tuosday of January, May and September, together with the civil business.
The act of 1917, establishing a Superior Court in Androscoggin County, at Auburn, was amended. Five terms were provided; the criminal and civil business not being held in separate terms. The court was scheduled for the transaction of civil and criminal business on the first Tuesday of February, April, June, October, and December.
The time of holding the County Commissioners’ Court was fixed, as follows: [list omitted]
The January term of the Supreme Judicial Court in Penobscot County was eliminated. The February and September terms for criminal business were also eliminated.
A session of the Supreme Judicial Court in Cumberland County was added. The new session was to be held at Portland on the first Tuesday of March. The effective date of the addition was September 1, 1928.
The trial terms of the Superior Court was fixed, effective January 1, 1930, as follows: [list omitted]
In the same act, provisions were made for the holding of two or more simultaneous sessions when public convenience so required.
By an act of March 30, 1930, the December term of the Superior Court in Hancock County was abolished. The December term of the Superior Court in Kennebec County at Waterville was abolished. The June term of the Superior Court in Penobscot County was abolished. Also, the provision that criminal business could be transacted at the April term of the court in Penobscot County, together with the civil business, was abolished.
On. term of the Superior Court in Aroostook County, at Caribou, for civil business was transferred to Houlton and changed to a term for criminal business.
An additional term of the Superior Court in Hancock County was established. The new term was to be held at Ellsworth on the first Tuesday of December.
The number of justices of the Superior Court was increased from seven to eight.
Legislation was enacted changing the name of recorders of Municipal Court to “Associate Judges”, provided that the recorder was an attorney at law.
A District Court for the State of Maine was established. The State was divided into 33 judicial divisions. The judicial divisions were further organized into 13 districts. The District Courts were given lithe civil and criminal jurisdiction exercised by all trial justices and municipal courts in the State, and in addition, 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 proceedings under chapter 167 and original jurisdiction, concurrent with that of the probate court, of actions for separation.
The Governor, with the advice and consent of the [Executive] Council, 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.
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Source: Source: Whittier, David Q. HISTORY OF THE COURT SYSTEM OF THE STATE OF MAINE. Augusta, Me. 1971. Maine State Archives.
*Footnotes have been omitted, obvious typographic errors corrected, and long paragraphs split for easier reading. Otherwise unedited. See original version at the Maine State Archives.