Part II: Trial Courts

District Court

The District Court system was created by the Legislature in 1961. The District Court has 33 judges who hold court in 13 districts at many locations throughout Maine. This court hears civil, criminal and family matters and always sits without a jury. Civil suits claiming monetary damages, domestic relations cases (divorces, separations, custody, and property disputes), and involuntary commitments are examples of civil cases. There is also established within the District Court a Family Division that has jurisdiction over family matters in the District Court. There are 8 Family Law Magistrates who work in the Family Division.

A plaintiff who has a right to trial by jury in a civil action waives the right by bringing the action in District Court; a defendant with a right to a civil jury may remove the action to a Superior Court for jury trial.

The court also tries cases involving civil violations and Class D and E criminal offenses when the defendant waives the right to a jury trial. In addition, the court hears all juvenile matters and traffic infraction cases.

Most decisions of the District Court may be appealed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court, except for small claims and forcible entry and detainer cases.

In Maine, the small claims court is a special session of the District Court held in each district on certain days determined by the Chief Judge of the District Court. In small claims court, the procedure is simplified, hearings are informal, and parties generally appear without attorneys. Small claims proceedings are appropriate only when the amount in controversy, not including interest and costs, is not more than $6,000. Appeals from small claims judgments may be taken to the Superior Court. A defendant who appeals, and who has a right to a jury trial, may have a trial de novo (a complete retrial) before a Superior Court jury.

See also Adult Drug Court.

The Superior Court

The Superior Court consists of 16 justices who hold court at regular intervals in each of Maine's 16 counties. Except for family matters, juvenile cases, and civil violations, the Superior Court may hear almost any kind of civil or criminal case that may be brought to trial. Since the Superior Court is the only court that uses juries, it hears all murder and Class A, B, and C criminal cases, as well as those Class D and E cases in which the defendant asks for a jury trial.

In civil actions both the Superior Court and the District Court have jurisdiction in cases seeking money damages. This means that, in such cases, the plaintiff can choose between District and Superior Court. If the plaintiff wishes to exercise a right to jury trial or prefers the location or some other feature of the Superior Court, the case may be brought in that court. There are also some actions where the plaintiff seeks something other than a simple money judgment, for example, an injunction. Many of these actions may only be brought in Superior Court.

The Superior Court also hears appeals from state and local administrative agencies.

Appeals from the Superior Court may be taken to the Supreme Judicial Court.

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