Which court does what?

The Maryland court system has four levels: two trial courts and two appellate courts. The trial courts consider evidence presented in a case and make judgments based on the facts, the law and legal precedent (prior legal decisions from a higher court). Appellate courts review a trial court's actions and decisions and decide whether the trial judge properly followed the law and legal precedent.

Here’s an overview of what each court does.

Trial courts

District Court window

• District Court

Most people experience the court system through the District Court, which has 34 locations in 12 districts statewide. Each case is heard and decided by a judge, not a jury. Types of cases include traffic and boating violations, domestic violence and peace order petitions, landlord-tenant disputes, small claims and other civil cases involving limited dollar amounts.

• Circuit Court

The Circuit Courts of Maryland generally handle more serious criminal cases and major civil cases. The types of civil cases include juvenile and other family law cases such as divorce, custody and child support, and most cases appealed from the District Court. Circuit Courts also hear domestic violence cases. There is one Circuit Court in each of the 23 counties and Baltimore City. Unlike District Court, Circuit Court cases may involve a trial by jury, as well as cases heard and decided by a judge.

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Appellate building

Appellate courts

• Court of Special Appeals

The Court of Special Appeals is Maryland’s second highest court, the intermediate appellate court. The Court of Special Appeals considers any prior reviewable judgment, decree, order or other action. In other words, if a party is unhappy with a Circuit Court decision, they have the option to appeal their case for review by the Court of Special Appeals. Judges sitting on the Court of Special Appeals generally hear and decide cases in panels of three, but in some instances, all 15 judges can sit to hear the case.

• Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals is the highest court in Maryland. It is commonly called the Supreme Court in other states and at the federal level. Unlike the Court of Special Appeals, this court does not automatically hear every reviewable case. Judges who sit on the Court of Appeals review and select cases they choose to hear — usually cases they feel will have legal significance for the state.

However, the Court of Appeals is mandated by law to hear cases involving the death penalty, legislative redistricting, removal of certain officers, and certifications of questions of law.

Chief Judge Mary Ellen Barbera sits on the court along with six other judges. All seven judges hear oral arguments on each case.

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What about the Orphans’ Court?

There is a court in Maryland called the Orphans’ Court. This specialized court is the state’s probate court, which means it handles wills, estates, and other matters that involve the property of the newly deceased. The Orphans’ Court also has jurisdiction over guardianships of minors. The term “Orphans’ Court” is simply the historical name for a court that handles wills and estates. Three Orphans’ Court judges sit in the City of Baltimore and each of Maryland’s counties, except Harford and Montgomery counties. In those two counties, Circuit Court judges sit as Orphans’ Court judges.