Part I: What The Courts Do
In This Section
Courts are institutions designed to resolve civil and criminal complaints and disputes. They also provide official approval of certain matters, such as the distribution of property after death, adoptions, and name changes, that are not in dispute.
Maine's state courts play an important role in your life. For example, they are available and may be used to protect your rights and to enforce your responsibilities:
- if you are being threatened by someone,
- if you buy or sell property,
- if you get divorced,
- if you have problems at work,
- if you have a dispute with someone who provides you with a service, or
- if you are involved in an automobile accident or a fistfight.
The courts are even used after your death to determine what happens to your assets and debts. If you sue or are sued, if you are accused of committing a crime, if you are a witness to an event, if you are a victim of a crime, or if you are called to jury duty, you may be required to appear in a Maine court.
When your dispute is with a resident of another state or is governed by federal law, you may find yourself in a federal court located in Portland or Bangor. Some of the laws we live under are passed by the Maine State Legislature and others are passed by the United States Congress so disputes may be resolved by either the Maine state courts or the federal courts, depending on the law involved or the residence of the parties. This Guide describes the procedure and organization of the Maine state courts, although many of the basic ideas discussed apply to the federal courts as well.
Maine's state principal courts are the District Court, where lesser criminal offenses, civil actions, and family law matters may be tried; the Superior Court, where almost all civil and criminal matters may be tried; and the Supreme Judicial Court, which hears appeals from all trial courts. Maine also has Probate Courts for questions involving estates and similar matters. The court system is discussed in detail in Part III of this Guide.
Citizens come to court in several different roles.
1. As a Party to a Case:
A party is a person who is suing or being sued. In a civil action, where one person sues another, the one bringing the suit is called the plaintiff. The person being sued is referred to as the defendant. In a criminal case, the State, which starts the proceedings is called the prosecution. The person who is accused is called the defendant. Each party in a case may be represented by a lawyer whose job it is to prepare and present that party's case. An individual may choose not to be represented by a lawyer in either a civil or criminal case (this is sometimes referred to as acting pro se). In that instance, the individual should be prepared to present evidence (witnesses and exhibits) that will present facts showing why he or she should prevail. Defendants in criminal cases need not present evidence or witnesses. They may challenge the State's evidence by questioning State witnesses.
2. As a Witness:
A witness is a person who has some knowledge about the issue in dispute. The duty of a witness is to appear in court and testify truthfully. Witnesses are summoned to court by a document called a subpoena, a court order directing the person to appear on a specified date. A witness' willful failure to comply with a subpoena may be punished as contempt of court, which could result in his or her arrest.
3. As a Juror:
In the Superior Court, many kinds of cases are decided by a jury, whose members are residents chosen at random. The job of a juror is to listen attentively to the case as it is presented, and then to decide the outcome fairly and impartially. The presiding judge (formally addressed as a Justice in the Superior Court) will instruct the jury on matters of law, but determination of the factual matters in dispute, including whether the State has proven a criminal charge is solely up to the jury.
4. As a Visitor:
Except for certain cases involving families, children, or jury discussions, the proceedings of the courts are open to the public unless the judge orders them closed in an unusual case to prevent harm to a party or witness, or unless they are closed by statute. Thus, any citizen may attend most proceedings in any of Maine's courts. For further information, see "Visiting the Courts" in Part III of this Guide.