A constitutional amendment passed in 1969 and ratified in the general election of 1970 created the District Court in 1971. When the Court began operating on July 5, 1971, it replaced a confusing system of local magistrates, justices of the peace, and People’s Courts, each with its own rules and procedures. Under the old system, trials were held in homes, basements of retail establishments, or other unsuitable places. Often, untrained magistrates or justices of the peace staffed these courts. As a result, the quality of justice varied from county to county and failed to provide the citizens of Maryland a judicial system that deserved their full trust and confidence.
The District Court, with headquarters located in Annapolis, is a statewide court with 34 locations in 12 districts. Effective July 1, 2013, a staff of more than 1,300 including 115 judges, plus the Chief Judge, ensures its mission—providing equal and exact justice for all who are involved in litigation before the Court.
District Court judges must be members of the Maryland Bar, at least 30 years old, and must reside in the county in which they sit. Most importantly, each must meet high standards of professionalism and personal integrity. Judges are selected by the Governor and confirmed by the state Senate.
The District Court, one of just two general trial courts in Maryland, has seen tremendous growth since its inception in 1971. In its first year, the Court processed just under 800,000 cases; today, more than two million cases are filed annually. Those cases cover a wide variety of issues, including:
• landlord-tenant disputes;
• replevin claims, which seek the recovery of goods or property;
• motor vehicle violations, ranging from parking tickets to driving under the influence of alcohol;
• civil lawsuits for up to $30,000;
• criminal misdemeanors and certain felonies; and
• bail and preliminary hearings for any crime charged in Maryland.
The District Court does not conduct jury trials. In those instances where a party to a case is entitled to and requests a jury trial, the case is moved to a circuit court. As a result, civil claims for between $5,000 and $30,000, and certain criminal offenses can be heard in either District Court or circuit court.
With such broad jurisdiction, it should come as no surprise that most Maryland citizens with court business visit the District Court. Many individuals choose to represent themselves, especially in civil disputes over small amounts. In that sense, the District Court is truly a people’s court.
The Court and its employees are proud to continue the tradition of providing excellent service to the people of Maryland.
“Maryland’s present system of courts of limited jurisdiction, which consists of Trial Magistrates, People’s and Municipal Court Judges, will be replaced on July 5, 1971 by a full-time District Court that was approved by public referendum in the general election held November 3, 1970 ...
“The new Court will be staffed by seventy-eight full-time judges who must be members of the Maryland Bar, not less than thirty years old and have practiced law for at least five years. They will have statewide jurisdiction and will sit throughout the twelve districts that will comprise the Court. They will be appointed by the Governor, subject to Senatorial confirmation, to ten-year terms of office. No election to office is provided by the legislation creating the Court. Under the provisions of the District Court Act, all existing full-time People’s and Municipal Court judges will automatically become District Court judges.
“... Deputy Attorney General Robert F. Sweeney was appointed Chief Judge of the District Court and took office May 5, 1971, as provided in the District Court Act, so as to enable him to begin the arduous task of organizing the new system. It is anticipated that the District Court, due to its increased civil jurisdiction, when compared to the present courts of limited jurisdiction, will be able to relieve some of the load of the circuit courts.”
July 5—The District Court begins operations under the leadership of Chief Judge Robert F. Sweeney and Chief Clerk Margaret L. Kostritsky.
July—During its first year of operation, the District Court processes a total of 778,718 cases. 438,793 involved motor vehicle violations, 112,923 were criminal actions, and 227,002 were civil actions.
August—The Honorable Robert C. Murphy is named the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.
The revenues received by the District Court total $14,704,307. The expenses required to operate the Court total just $10,505,873.
“The first two years of operation of the District Court have had an impact in reducing the civil law caseload of the circuit courts when compared to the courts of limited jurisdiction that existed prior to the establishment of the District Court.”
January—The District Court begins using a new computerized system for processing motor-vehicle citations. Under the new system, a motorist can choose to plead guilty and mail in the fine. Once the fine is received, the new system notes the fine, alerts the Motor Vehicle Administration that the driver has pled guilty, and closes the case. If the fine is not received, the computer automatically schedules a trial date.
November—The Maryland Automated Traffic System (MATS) is implemented to increase the efficiency of tracking and scheduling traffic citation cases by computer.
“When the District Court was established in 1971, Maryland was almost unique among the states in abolishing all part-time and local courts of limited jurisdiction and creating in their stead a single statewide court, centrally administered, and staffed by judges who were required to be experienced in the practice of law and to devote their full time to judicial duties. Over the past eight years, however, more and more states have begun to emulate the Maryland model, and it is apparent that Maryland’s 1971 innovation is now the wave of the future.”
The District Court and the circuit courts are granted concurrent jurisdiction with respect to protection from domestic violence. The new law allows a household member to file a petition alleging abuse against another household member. The courts are empowered to take various actions to protect the affected household member from abuse, including an order to refrain from abuse, an order to vacate the family home for a specified period, the awarding of temporary custody of a minor, and an order directing household members to undergo counseling.
The District Court is given exclusive original jurisdiction over any violation of the bad check laws.
A new law calls for the District Court to prescribe a uniform statewide form for traffic citations.
The Maryland District Court Criminal System is implemented to increase the efficiency of tracking and scheduling criminal cases through computerization.
The Court’s jurisdiction is broadened to include all theft cases, and the legislature increases the Court’s civil jurisdiction from $5,000 to $10,000.
Legislation is enacted extending classified service status to all non-judicial employees of the Court.
A new law establishes the breath test as the primary determinant test for driving while intoxicated or driving under the influence of alcohol.
The legislature passes a law giving the District Court concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit courts over credit card offenses and bad check cases.
The jurisdictional amount of small claims and landlord/tenant actions is increased to $2,500.
Several bills are enacted to reduce alcohol- or drug-related driving offenses.
The revenues received by the District Court total $47,731,000. The expenses required to operate the Court are $46,797,000.
A statewide computerized data and bar-coding system is placed in 90 District Court locations in the state, and 50 commissioners’ stations. The system allows a commissioner to create a case number and corresponding bar code that will follow the defendant through the criminal court system. The system also allows commissioners to see any new charges that have been filed.
April 10—Edward L. Utz is appointed Chief Clerk of the District Court.
Jurisdiction over civil cases rises from $10,000 to $20,000, allowing people the option of having their cases heard in District Court and avoiding a one- to four-year backlog in the circuit court.
The automation of courtroom clerical functions is fully implemented to increase courtroom efficiency and reduce human error.
The court’s cash registers are linked to the mainframe system, so that as someone pays a traffic citation, the citation is registered as paid in the MATS and MVA is automatically notified.
September 17—The Honorable Robert F. Sweeney retires as the Chief Judge of the District Court.
The Honorable Martha F. Rasin is sworn in as the Chief Judge of the District Court.
October 23—The Honorable Robert F. Bell is named the Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals.
June—Patricia H. Platt is appointed Chief Clerk of the District Court.
July—Commissioner’s Assistant software is introduced to ease the process of filing criminal charges.
The Interactive Voice Response (IVR) system is installed. This computerized telephone system allows a caller to use a touch-tone phone to get information about or pay a traffic citation.
November 3—Maryland voters ratify an amendment to the state constitution that limits the right to trial by jury in civil cases to those cases in which the amount in controversy exceeds $10,000. The effect of the amendment is to increase the exclusive jurisdiction of the District Court.
November 16—The new District Court building in Annapolis opens. It is named the Robert F. Sweeney Building in honor of the first Chief Judge of the District Court.
The legislature establishes peace orders to provide relief similar to that provided by protective orders in domestic violence cases. Peace orders provide protection from assault, false imprisonment, harassment, malicious destruction of property, stalking, and trespass. The District Court is given exclusive jurisdiction for peace orders.
September 17—The Honorable Martha F. Rasin steps down as the Chief Judge of the District Court and returns to the bench.
September 18—Chief Judge Robert M. Bell appoints the Honorable James N. Vaughan, Administrative Judge in Howard and Carroll Counties, as the new Chief Judge of the District Court.
The District Court completed installation of an integrated digital courtroom recoding system which converts analog audio into digital audio files. The digital files, similar to music CDs (compact discs), will substantially improve the process of finding and playing back particular parts of a recording, while increasing the efficiency of the transcribing process. Court records of any proceeding can also be duplicated on a data CD that can be played back on a Windows-based PC.
The legislature established the 24/7 rule, allowing commissioners to issue temporary peace and protective orders when the courts are closed. CourtNet went online.
Joseph Rosenthal was named the new Chief Clerk of the District Court. Rosenthal assumed the position upon the retirement of Patti Platt in January 2004. Judge Ben C. Clyburn was named the new Chief Judge of the District Court in November, upon the retirement of Judge James Vaughan.
The District Court initiated a number of specialty court dockets for domestic violence, driving under the influence, drug and mental health cases. In conjunction with the State Highway Administration, the Court began a pilot project to process traffic tickets electronically. Plans call for the electronic citation project to be fully implemented in 2008.
Chief Justice of the United States John G. Roberts Jr. served as the speaker for the annual statewide gathering of judges. The Eastside District Court initiated a new integrated domestic violence court.
The District Court began accepting eCitations from law enforcement agencies. New Carrolltown Police Department was the first police agency certified by the District Court to issue eCitations in the State of Maryland. The District Court implemented online payment of traffic fines through the Judiciary's ePayment system.
Project Passport, the initiative to standardize domestic violence orders for the benefit of victims and law enforcement, is implemented. Domestic violence orders have a recognizable, uniform, first page for critical information.
District Court launched the first court based self-help center at the District Court for Anne Arundel County in Glen Burnie, MD as a pilot project.
The District Court was named the 2009 recipient of the Commitment to Conflict Resolution Award.The award recognized the work of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Office.
The Domestic Violence Video Conferencing Pilot Program was established on May 20, 2009 in Montgomery County through the Montgomery County Domestic Violence Self Help Center.
Twenty-five law enforcement agencies have been certified to issue eCitations. The total number of eCitations issued in 2009 was 293,044.
The Maryland Network Against Domestic Violence presents Chief Judge Ben Clyburn with their 2010 Leadership Award in recognition of his commitment to ending domestic violence and his outstanding leadership to improve the judicial response to domestic violence.
The Domestic Violence Video Conferencing Program goes live on December 6th. Proceedings for temporary domestic violence hearings originating from the Family Justice Center in Montgomery County will be conducted through video transmission.
New legislation went into effect on January 1, 2011 that gives the person charged on a payable traffic citation 3 options to satisfy the citation and 30 days to notify the court. The District Court will no longer automatically set payable citations for trial.
Chief Judge Ben C. Clyburn is the recipient of the first annual MD Access to Justice Commission's Judge of the Year Award. Judge Clyburn consistently challenges District Court judges around the State to respond more effectively to people who appear without counsel, the indigent, and those facing a range of barriers while using the courts. Judge Clyburn was instrumental in creating the District Court’s first Self-Help Center at the Glen Burnie District Court.
Chief Judge Clyburn appoints Roberta (Bobbie) Warnken as the new Chief Clerk effective July 1, 2011, upon the retirement of Chief Clerk Joseph P. Rosenthal.
District Court posts new Public Spanish Forms and Brochures' Index (Formularios y Folletos Index En Español) online with links to new and revised bilingual forms and brochures.
District Court Focus Group completes review of all forms and notices for new Maryland Electronic Courts case management system.
Fact: 69% of all Maryland traffic citations received by the District Court in 2012 were filed electronically.