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How Does the Maine Supreme Court Work?

The Maine Supreme Court is the only appellate division of the Maine judicial system. With no intermediate appellate court in the state, the Supreme Court is the apex court, hence the court of final appeal in Maine. The Maine Supreme Court has a unique distinction in that it is authorized to issue advisory opinions on legal issues of high public importance. Such opinions are issued at the behest of the executive branch or the legislative branch of the Maine government.

The court’s chief responsibility is to decide appeals on questions of law arising from civil actions and criminal trials. Questions of law are brought before the court when cases are appealed from one of the state’s trial courts. The Supreme Court hears appeals from criminal sentences when the sentence is one year or more of incarceration. It is also responsible for overseeing the admission of attorneys to the Maine State Bar and the conduct and discipline of lawyers and judges. The Supreme Court has procedural rulemaking authority over all the courts in Maine and sits as the Law Court.

No new trials are held in the Supreme Court. The court does not consider new testimony, exhibits, or other materials relating to the facts of a case that were not presented to the trial court. In cases where new facts or exhibits are discovered for the first time after the conclusion of the trial, a motion for a new hearing must be filed to the trial court. Decisions in the appeal of cases in the Supreme Court are made based on the record developed in the trial court. These records include any oral testimony, arguments, rulings, exhibits, and written rulings by the trial court judge. Oral rulings by the judge, oral arguments by the attorneys, and oral testimonies are considered on appeal if the trial court hearing is recorded. A transcript is prepared and presented to the Supreme Court on appeal. Note that the party filing the appeal is responsible for ordering and paying for the transcript. The transcript is also required to be submitted along with the notice of appeal.

The parties in a case are only afforded 20 minutes for oral arguments to state their positions and respond to questions from the justices. Very often, many appellants divide their time, requesting roughly 15 minutes to present their opening argument and reserving up to five minutes for an opportunity for rebuttal argument after the appellee’s argument is presented. The court grants no rebuttal time for appellees.

In making its decisions, the Justices on the Supreme Court reflect on the queries presented and issue a written opinion to decide the issues in line with the court’s view of the law and affirming or reversing the trial court’s decision. Where the Supreme Court finds no grounds in the appeal that justifies changing the trial court’s ruling, the apex court affirms such judgment. If the Supreme Court determines that the trial court erred in one or more respects and that the error was not harmless, the decision of the trial court may be vacated in whole or in part. In the cases where the Supreme Court vacates the decision of the trial court, the apex court will specify what changes are required to be made in the decision and return the case to the trial court to make the changes.

Alternatively, the Supreme Court may vacate the result and return the case to the trial court for a new hearing, a new trial, or further findings. In that wise, the final result will be made again by the trial court after further hearing or consideration. Occasionally, the Supreme Court may issue an order to dismiss the appeal or order the underlying case dismissed.

Upon considering the presenting questions and issues, the court may also issue a brief memorandum of decision describing the outcome in a particular case. Note that memoranda of decision are not published. A decision may be published any time from one day up to a year or more after the Supreme Court discusses it. However, findings are typically issued within three months of the date of the initial discussion. After the decision on an appeal, the Supreme Court gives a mandate which initiates the return of the case file to the trial court. Subsequently, the trial court resumes authority over the case, to enforce the terms of any affirmed ruling or proceed as directed by the Supreme Court in the case of a vacated judgment.

Opinions of the Supreme Court are published and become binding on all the courts in Maine when the lower courts adjudicate similar disputes. Published opinions of the Maine Supreme Court are available online on the Maine Courts website or in bound form in the Maine Reporter.

There are seven justices, including a presiding Chief Justice serving on the Maine Supreme Court. These justices serve seven-year terms, which may be renewed severally. The Governor of Maine appoints the Justices of the court subject to confirmation by the Maine State Senate. After a seven-year term, justices who wish to continue on the court must be reappointed by the Governor. The same process is required when a vacancy exists on the court.

Maine makes no specific requirement for candidates to be appointed to the court other than that individuals must be learned in the law. Justices may be removed from the Maine Supreme Judicial Court via impeachment by a majority vote of both levels of the state Legislature. However, the Maine State Senate majority votes must be up to a two-third. Alternatively, a Justice may be removed upon the address by the Governor of both houses of Legislature.

To obtain a copy of a Supreme Court record, visit the courthouse at:

205 Newbury Street
Room 139
Portland, Maine 04101–4125
Phone: (207) 822–4135

Note that a nominal fee will be charged to obtain copies of a court record.

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