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Alicia Lucero
Alicia Lucero

Navigating the Maryland Court System

The Maryland Court System Briefly Outlined

Nowadays, the average American dreads going to court. Companies usually assume that going to court will cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees, may take years to conclude, and the result will be less than favorable. However, with a better understanding of the different aspect of the state court system, you can be better equipped to deal with legal issues.

Below we’ve briefly outlined the function and different levels of the Maryland court system.

The structure of the Maryland court system has four levels, two trial courts, and two appellate courts.

The trial courts look at the evidence and determine guilt or innocence. They make judgments based on facts, the legal precedent, and the law.

Two levels of appellate courts review trial court’s decisions and actions. After reviewing they decide whether the trial judge followed the legal precedent and the law while making decisions.

How Maryland Court System Works – The Basics

Let us have a look at exactly how the Maryland court system operates. Under the Maryland State Constitution, Maryland’s court system consists of four levels. Of those four, there are two trial courts: the District Court and the Circuit Court; and two appellate courts: the Court of Special Appeals and the Court of Appeals. There are also other Maryland Court bodies such as Orphans’ Court, The Office of Administrative Hearings, and Federal Courts in Maryland with agencies related to the Maryland Judicial System.

Trial Courts

Once you are accused of committing a crime and police arrest you, you’ll spend some time in a local jail as a holding place before your trial. Soon, you’ll appear before a judge who will inform you of the charge. At this point, known as the arrangement, you either plead “guilty” or “not guilty”. If you plead not guilty, the judge will set a bail amount and date for your trial to begin.

Depending on your offense, you’ll either go through the state’s District Court or Circuit Court.

District Court

Most people experience the US judicial system structure through a kind of district court. There is at least one district court located in each state county and the city of Baltimore. In a district court, most cases are argued before and decided by a judge, not a jury. Thus, most cases involve minor offenses such as traffic violations and boating violations, certain kinds of felonies and misdemeanors, peace order petitions and domestic violence cases, landlord-tenant disputes, civil cases involving limited dollar amounts and small claims, and recovery of detained or wrongfully taken goods (known as replevin).

Circuit Court

Circuit courts usually handle serious criminal cases. Major civil cases, such as juvenile and different family law cases, also fall under its jurisprudence. Most cases appealed from District Court, orphan’s courts, and administrative agencies also end up in circuit court. These cases are usually concerning divorce, custody and child support, but also cases of domestic violence. Again, each state county and Baltimore host a Circuit Court. Either a judge or jury may decide a case at this level.

Appellate Courts.

There are two appellate courts in Maryland, or places you would go to dispute the outcome of a trial case. For example, if you were found guilty, you could still argue at these courts that the lawyers missed some evidence, police mishandled the investigation, or the jury had a significant bias against you.

Court of Special Appeals

The Court of Special Appeals acts as an intermediate appellate court. As lawyers argue out their position, panel judges, usually three, review the procedures and evidence handled by the trial court. In the end, these judges could either overrule the trial verdict, uphold the original decision, or declare a mistrial.

Court of Appeals

The Maryland Court of Appeals is the highest court of the state (commonly known as a “supreme court” in other states). This panel of seven judges handles cases by writ of certiorari, or written request. They determine if laws follow the state constitution. The state also requires them to judge cases involving state redistricting or the impeachment of officials.

Other Maryland Court Bodies

In addition to courts that deal with criminal and civil cases, Maryland also has a number of judicial bodies that deal with other regulatory matter.

Orphans’ Court

Judges presiding over the Orphans’ Court handle matters concerning of guardianship of children, their wills, and managing the estates of unemancipated minors.

Office of Administrative Hearings

The Office of Administrative Hearings focuses on all contested executive branch administrative law cases. For example, if you have an issue with the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration, with your license or an insurance policy, this agency may grant you a hearing.

Federal Courts in Maryland

The state of Maryland contains a few federal courts. If your case deals with laws that overlap with both the state and federal levels, you may appear in both courts simultaneously. U.S. Constitution authorizes federal courts to address issues involving laws enacted by the federal Congress. State courts, on the other hand, deal with laws of the state and local government. For more information, visit the U.S. Courts’ website.

Agencies Related to the Maryland Judicial System

In Maryland, professional lawyers of the state and non-members of the Maryland Bar are free to offer legal services. Attorney Grievance Commission oversees all their conduct.

If a person wants admission to practice law in the state, they must pass the bar examination, managed by the Board of Law Examiners.

The Client Protection Fund provides resources and training for those seeking state admission. They also protect members against fraud and other attacks on their integrity by reimbursing their losses.

The Commission on Judicial Disabilities primarily receives, investigates, and hears complaints against members of the Maryland Judiciary. This agency also confidentially recommends reprimands for offending judges.

Rules Committee meets to consider potential changes to court procedure and decorum.

The Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) administers and manages budget concerns of the Maryland courts.

Finally, you should consult the State Law Library for more technical information about the legal process.

What to do in the Maryland Court System on your actual criminal or traffic trial or hearing date:

Procedures differ slightly between Maryland counties.  Unless otherwise indicated, these are suggestions for Montgomery County.

When Appearing in District Court:

1. Know the date and time when court is scheduled.  Leave enough time to go through security screening and get to your courtroom promptly.  Dress appropriately: no jeans, shorts, and tank tops or overly casual attire.

2. Do not bring food or beverages, knives or any other item that may be used as a weapon.

3. You may bring a cell phone, laptop or tablet computer, but these items must be powered off while in the courtroom. In Montgomery County, your electronic device may be confiscated if you look at it or review texts or e-mails; go outside to do those things.

4. There are large LED displays in the lobby area just after you get through security.  Most trial courtrooms are on the fourth floor. Civil domestic violence cases are in 512, bond hearings in 513 and other kinds of preliminary proceedings in 511.  There is a “Criminal-Traffic” clerk’s office on the second floor if you need information or assistance.

5. Ask your attorney for any special instructions about checking in when you are in the courtroom.  Montgomery County and most jurisdictions require you to check in with either a prosecutor or clerk, or both, but that is only for you to identify yourself. Your attorney should negotiate with the prosecutor or inform the clerk about the status of your case.

6. Proceedings in the courtroom are recorded on sensitive equipment before, during, and after the judge arrives. Do not have conversations when the judge is there, and don’t say anything else at other times that you would not want to have anyone record or listen to later.

7. In criminal and traffic cases that involve possible jail time, judges control the docket and take quicker and preliminary matters first, then guilty pleas, and then trials. You must be present in the courtroom, not the lobby, when your case is called, or make arrangements for someone to answer for you if you are using the restrooms.

8. After your case is concluded, sit in the front row of the courtroom to receive a printed “Defendant Trial Summary” and then review any fines and costs that must be paid immediately.  Deferred payments must be approved before you leave the courtroom. If you must pay on the same day, go to the second floor “Cashier’s office.” Any payment you wish to make by using a debit or charge card will require an additional fee, but the cashier will take cash or checks. All payments must be made before 4:30 p.m. on the date payment is due.

If you have been placed on supervised probation and ordered to report, there is a probation intake office at the District Court, Rockville location, 191 E. Jefferson Street, and you must report even if your trial was in Silver Spring.

In general, if you are not satisfied with the outcome of a District Court proceeding, you must file a written notice of appeal at the clerk’s office not later than 30 days of the final disposition in that court. You may be required to pay court costs, currently $80.00, before the appeal will be noted by the District Court clerk.  If the District Court judge ordered an appeal bond, that also must be paid, but fines and court costs may generally be deferred until the case is final in Circuit Court.

Any appeal permitted by law will go to the Circuit Court for Montgomery County where a “trial de novo” is granted.  If you have been acquitted of some charges in District Court, then you will not have to stand trial on those again.  If you entered a guilty plea in District Court to less than all the charges, the charges that were dropped in District Court may be reinstituted in Circuit Court.  That is, there will be a Circuit Court proceeding as though there was never a trial in District Court.

When Appearing in Circuit Court:

1. Know the date and time when court is scheduled.  Leave enough time to go through security screening and get to your courtroom promptly.  Dress appropriately: no jeans, shorts, and tank tops or overly casual attire.

2. Any containers and backpacks will be screened and no weapons of any kind are permitted.  Circuit Court security personnel will generally permit you to bring food and drink. There is also a cafeteria on the “T” level of the courthouse and executive office building complex.

3. There are two Circuit Court buildings, called the North Tower, or the older concrete facility, and the newer addition, called the South Tower. Most court notices will indicate tower location and courtroom number.  “6A” [through “D”] refers to a courtroom on the 6th floor of the North Tower; “4F” [that is, a letter greater than E] would be on the 4th floor in the South Tower.

All Family and Juvenile cases are generally heard in the South Tower, but criminal and traffic cases could be heard in either tower; look for the LED displays that are available in the lobby area and on each floor where there are courts.  In the lobby area, there is also an information desk and the Assignment Office, both of which may assist you.

4. The Montgomery County Circuit Court policy on cell phones, tablets and laptops is much more liberal than District Court.  Just be sure that the electronic device is set on mute. 

5. Ask your attorney for any special instructions about checking in when you are in the courtroom.  There is no automatic or general rule in Circuit Court courtrooms.

6. Proceedings in the courtroom are recorded on sensitive equipment before, during, and after the judge arrives. Do not have conversations when the judge is there, and don’t say anything else at other times that you would not want to have anyone record or listen to later.

7. In Circuit Case criminal and traffic cases there are relatively few cases scheduled each day and usually identified in a printed list that will be called by a clerk or the prosecutor in each courtroom.   You must be present in the courtroom, not the lobby, when your case is called, or make arrangements for someone to answer for you if you are using the restrooms.

8. After your case is concluded in the courtroom, make note of any new court dates or requirements imposed by the judge. If you have been placed on probation, a court order is generally prepared by the clerk and signed by you before you leave the courtroom.  If you have fines or costs to be paid, you will generally be directed to the “Finance Office” on the second floor atrium of the North Tower. 

If you have been placed on supervised probation and ordered to report, there is a probation intake office at the District Court Rockville location, 191 E. Jefferson Street.

In general, if you are not satisfied with the outcome of a Circuit Court proceeding, your right to appeal depends on whether you had a trial or entered a guilty plea.  And, if you have already been tried in District Court a further appeal may be limited or unavailable.  Appeals from guilty pleas require permission from the Court of Special Appeals.  Like District Court, any appeal that is permitted by law must be noted in writing and within 30 days.  An attorney’s advice and assistance are essential, because appeals from the Circuit Court are entirely in writing and based upon transcripts of the testimony in Circuit Court, not new testimony or a new trial. Your attorney will also have to prepare a written “Brief” containing legal authorities and arguments.

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