Like all other states in the country, the judiciary of Maine comprises of an appellate court which also has the administrative responsibility of the judicial network; courts with trial jurisdiction that have the authority to hear all criminal and civil matters and limited jurisdiction tribunals which are only allowed to handle certain criminal cases and non-criminal litigations with a higher cap on the disputed amount.
The Supreme Court of Maine
Established in 1820 as the first tribunal in the state upon its separation from Massachusetts, this is the highest judicial establishment in Maine and its only appellate court. Unlike in some other states, ME too does not have an intermediate appellate tribunal. This simply means that all the appeals from the lower courts are taken to the Supreme Court. Also known as the tribunal of last resort, the apex judicial body has seven justices including one Chief Justice who presides over the working of the entire judicial network.
The primary responsibility of the Supreme Court is to offer clarifications and answer questions pertaining to the interpretation and the application of Maine laws. In the process, the apex tribunal handles criminal and civil cases as well as disputes between citizens and state entities and interagency litigations. The criminal division of the Supreme Court will accept appeals from the Superior Court for all cases in which the penalty is a prison term of one year or more.
Appeals are presented before the Supreme Court through oral arguments and written briefs and the apex tribunal issues its decision through a written opinion which is published. The findings of the Supreme Court are a binding on all lower tribunals when adjudicating similar matters. Apart from handling appeals, the Supreme Court also has the authority to admit lawyers to the Maine bar and to initiate disciplinary action against judges and attorneys.
The Superior Court
On the next rung in the judicial ladder after the Supreme Court, the superior courts of Maine are tribunals with general jurisdiction, meaning they hear just about all criminal and civil matters. In fact, all of the important cases are tried at this judicial level. Despite its many chapters, one in each county, the Superior Court of Maine is considered a single judicial entity and as such it is served by 17 judges who hold court in various parts of the state.
The Superior Court is entitled to hear all matters except for family disputes, offenses that pertain to the violation of civic and traffic rules and juvenile cases. Because the Superior Court is the only entity that handles jury trials, all felonies and Class A and B misdemeanors where jury trial is requested are heard by this tribunal.
Apart from this, the Superior Court also handles jury and jury-waived civil cases, post conviction reviews, cases where an injunction or equitable relief is requested and appeals against the decisions made by state authorities. Except for Aroostook County which has two branches of the Superior Court, every other geographical division of Maine has one. However, the judges have statewide jurisdiction; hence, they frequently travel from one county to another to hear matters.
The District Courts
These are community tribunals that have limited jurisdiction. Established through a legislative addition made in 1961, these courts are held in 13 districts ad have 36 judges to preside over minor criminal cases and civil matters. All felony related preliminary processes including the release of ME active warrants are also handled by these tribunals. The family division of the District Court handles domestic disputes including divorces, separation, child custody and property litigations.
The small claims division is a specialized branch of the District Court which only handles minor litigations where attorneys do not have to be brought in to plead the case. However, the disputed amount should not exceed $6000 for the case to qualify for the small claims division.