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How Does the Maine Supreme Judicial Court Work?

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court is the apex court of law and the Court of last resort to adjudicate disputes in Maine. Appeals from the lower Probate, District, and Superior courts generally get to this appellate Court directly.

The justices of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court scrutinize eligible appeals in the light of state laws, the federal constitution, legislative acts, administrative rules, regulations, and the existing body of common law and treaties. The goal of an appeal and subsequent scrutiny is to establish that a lower trial court made a mistake in applying state laws, rules and regulations, and other judicial filters used in the establishment of liability, punishment, and remedies in Maine.

Thus, the Supreme Judicial Court does not conduct a new trial for appeals that come before it. Instead, the Court reviews written briefs, short oral arguments by legal representatives of the litigants, and relevant case records and decides whether the original verdict is valid. Although the Maine Supreme Court is not a fact-finding court, it may remand a case to the original Court of jurisdiction if it determines a retrial is necessary to establish obscure facts. However, this is rarely the case.

And when the Maine Supreme Judicial Court promulgates a decision, it is generally final except when the Legislature amends the constitution. Per the state’s constitution, such changes follow a constitutional convention or a legislatively referred constitutional amendment. An indirect citizen-led ballot may also create an initiated state statute that invalidates the Supreme Court ruling. Still, these measures are subject to legislative and execute checkpoints that prevent arbitrary changes.

Apart from these, the decisions of the Maine Supreme Judicial Court are only binding in state courts and have persuasive authority in federal appellate courts.

The appellate jurisdiction of the Maine Supreme Court generally encompasses civil and criminal cases decided in the lower courts. Litigants in a criminal case have the right of appeal to seek the Supreme Court’s review of the trial court conviction. The Supreme Court may also receive interlocutory appeals or exercise its prerogative to review a case by issuing a writ.

Annual reports of Maine judicial caseload statistics revealed that the apex court handles an average of 450 appeals every year. Considering that trial courts handle some 142,000 cases annually, the caseload of the Supreme Court appears minuscule—at 0.3%. This caseload is because the Supreme Court has the prerogative to accept appeals even though litigants have the right to appeal.

In exercising its prerogative to accept an appeal, the Supreme Court considers whether the case involves a question of the law that could reveal an error in the lower Court’s judgment. Generally, the appeals that the Maine Supreme Court considers broadly fall under:

  • Legal issues of significant importance to the public
  • Questions arising under Maine constitution, state laws, and federal constitution

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court comprises seven justices elected to seven-year terms following a gubernatorial appointment and Senate confirmation. The Governor also appoints one of these justices to serve a seven-year term as chief justice and head of the judiciary following a recommendation by a fourteen-member judicial selection committee and subsequent senate confirmation.

Articles V and VI of the Maine Constitution prescribe the eligibility, rules, and regulation governing the appointment and replacement of Supreme Court justices. The only eligibility requirement for justiceship candidates in Maine is to be learned in matters of the law. Generally, this means the candidate has some form of legal education. The law does not articulate any other requirement such as a license to practice law in Maine, citizenship, or residency in the state.

Following a Senate confirmation, a justice serves his/her entire tenure and may be reappointed by the sitting Governor. A justice may serve infinite terms as far as the Governor reappoints him/her, and the justice remains legally competent to stay in office. Besides the failure to be reappointed to office, Maine Supreme Judicial Court justices are removed from office only via:

  • impeachment by the Legislature or
  • removal from office

Impeachment: The impeachment of a serving Supreme Court justice typically follows a misdemeanor, violation of state and federal laws, or any such code of ethics, code of regulations, and standards applicable to active civil servants in Maine. Impeachment requires a majority vote of the house of representatives and conviction by two-thirds of the Senate.

Removal from office: Supreme Court justices are removed by the Governor on the address of both houses of the Legislature. Such removal typically follows inquests on misconduct, unethical practices, physical or mental incapacitation of a justice.

Apart from these, a justice may resign from office or voluntarily retire from judicial duties. In any case, the judicial selection committee shall recommend a suitable replacement to the government who forwards the candidate to the Senate for confirmation.

The Maine Supreme Court primarily holds sessions in Portland, but the Court often holds sessions at high schools around the state. These proceedings are open to interested persons, but admission into the courtroom is on a first-come-first-in basis due to limited seats. Persons who cannot attend sessions may listen to audio streams or view live video streams on a supported device (visit the streaming portal).

Maine Supreme Judicial Court
205 Newbury Street, Room 139
Portland, ME 04101–4125
Phone: (207) 822–4146 (Clerk’s Office)

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court maintains an online calendar and allows access to published opinions. Recent memoranda of decision are also available for public perusal for up to ninety days after the Court issued them. Interested persons may submit a request to the clerk’s office for court transcripts, briefs, and associated case records.

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