Courts in Maryland date back to the 1630s when the first was established in St. Mary's, modeled on the English system. A reorganization in 1790 created the first districts for court purposes. Unlike the majority of state court systems, Maryland's highest court is not called the Supreme Court.
There are 23 Orphans' Courts in Maryland with 66 judges. These are specialized courts that handle probate issues including wills, estates, and some guardianship matters.
District courts in Maryland do not conduct jury trials. They handle minor offenses like traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, and small claims cases concerning less than $5,000, and misdemeanors as well as domestic violence charges and restraining order requests. The court also has jurisdiction over some criminal issues, particularly those punishable with three or more years in prison and/or a fine of $2,500 or more. With 116 judges in 34 courts across 12 districts, each of the state's counties and the City of Baltimore has at least one court at this level.
In fiscal year 2015 there were over 1,676,000 cases before the district courts in the state. Of those over 18,000 were for Driving While Intoxicated and almost 25,000 were domestic violence cases.
Maryland is divided into eight districts for the purposes of its Circuit Courts which handle serious criminal cases and major civil cases, as well as juvenile and other family law issues such as divorce, custody and child support. The circuit court also takes civil appeals from the District Court, orphans' courts and state agencies. Circuit court cases may heard by a judge or a jury. There is a circuit court in each of the state's 23 counties and Baltimore City and 162 judges in all.
Appeals of Circuit Court decisions go to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals.
There were over 267,000 cases in these courts in fiscal year 2015, down slightly from previous years when there were over 280,000 cases. In fiscal year 2015 there were over 77,000 criminal cases and over 22,000 juvenile cases (from delinquency to child in need of services).
There are seven circuits of appellate courts. The Court of Special Appeals was created in 1966 to reduce the caseload in the Maryland Court of Appeals.
The 15 judges of the Court of Special Appeals are appointed by the Governor with senate approval for a one-year probationary period followed by 10-year terms if reelected by voters.
The Maryland Court of Special Appeals' jurisdiction includes any sentence, verdict, order, or other action of the circuit courts and orphans' courts. Cases are heard by panels of three judges who review case records and take oral arguments from both sides but do not listen to original testimony.
This court has received about 1,200 requests for hearings on civil matters in each of the past three years, and over 700 criminal cases each year for a total of more than 1,900 cases filed each year.
Seven judges sit on the state's highest court, one from each of the state's appellate circuits, and each judge is required to be a resident of his or her respective circuit. Judges are appointed by the governor and confirmed by the senate. After a one-year probationary period judges must run for reelection to 10-year terms. Judges sit in panels of three to review cases and hear
The court hears automatic appeals of death penalty sentences handed down in circuit courts. Its primary role is to determine the constitutionality of judicial decisions and therefore takes certain cases to test the application of laws, whether criminal or civil. The court may also take interlocutory appeals, which are requests for rulings that may affect pending cases.
The court received about 950 filings in fiscal year 2015, a figure that has remained steady over the past several years.
When a 17-year-old high school student was killed in a drunk driving accident after leaving a party at which an adult knew he and the driver of the vehicle had been drinking, his mother sued the other parent. A circuit court threw out the suit, saying the responsibility for drinking fell on the individuals who imbibed, not the adult who was home when they were drinking. But in 2016 the Court of Appeals decided that adults may serve alcohol to their own children at home but may not serve or allow minors from other families to drink in their homes. Saying that a minor does not know what effects alcohol may have and is therefore unable to make an informed decision about drinking, the case opens parents to civil suits from families of children harmed at or after parties. There is also the possibility of jail time for parents following passage of a new law on the matter.
A convicted murderer will be allowed an appeal after a popular podcast highlighted his case. Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the 1999 killing of his high school girlfriend, claims that his defense attorney was ineffective. His case was broadcast on a popular podcast show in 2016. A classmate claims she was talking to Syed at the library when his girlfriend was being killed, providing an alibi that was not part of his original defense. The state prosecutor sought to squelch a request to move his appeal to circuit court so that the classmate's new testimony may be considered. The special appeals court denied the state's request, so the request to move the case to circuit court can be considered – but no new trial has been approved yet.