Maryland’s Civil Court System – Where Does Your Case Fall?

Written By Talley H-S Kovacs, Esquire                                      

The civil court system in Maryland is comprised of four levels of courts, each with unique jurisdiction and purpose.

District Court

Each County and Baltimore City has at least one District Court.  The District Court has “exclusive jurisdiction” over “small claim” actions in Maryland where the amount in controversy does not exceed $ 5,000, or where a landlord tenant dispute arises under §§ 8-401 or 8-402 of the Real Property Article, where rent claimed does not exceed $ 5,000.  See Md. Code (2006, 2010 Supp.), § 4-405 of the Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article (“CJP”).

The District Court also has “exclusive original jurisdiction” for lower value civil claims, meaning that no other level of court can consider the claims in the first instance.  Exclusive, original jurisdiction extends over actions including the following representative actions: (1) any contract or tort claim where either the debt or damages do not exceed $30,000; (2) an action for replevin, regardless of amount; (3) a matter of attachment before judgment not exceeding  $ 30,000; (4) any action involving a landlord and tenant dispute; (5) a petition for injunction relating to property; (6) a petition by a county or municipality to enforce a license or permit; (7) proceedings to enforce certain civil penalties, (8) proceedings for peace orders; and (8) proceedings for condemnation of low-value properties.

Subject to four statutory exceptions for landlord tenant cases, replevin, ejectment, and injunctions, the District Court has “concurrent jurisdiction” with the Circuit Court, so that a plaintiff can choose either venue if the amount in controversy is between $5,000 and $30,000.00. CJP § 4-402.  

As long as the amount in controversy exceeds $15,000, a party in a District Court case may demand a jury trial on the issues in which case the case is removed to Circuit Court.

Circuit Court

Any civil claim where the amount in controversy exceeds $30,000 must be brought in the Circuit Court. The Circuit Court is the trial level court of general jurisdiction. Circuit Courts generally handle more serious tort, contract, and family law cases, as well as appeals from the decisions of Maryland’s Administrative Agencies.

Each county and Baltimore City has one Circuit Court, so in Maryland there are 24 Circuit Courts.  There are presently 147 Circuit Court Judges in Maryland across all 24 counties and Baltimore City.  The County Circuit Courts are grouped together into eight different Administrative Circuits that arise because of geographical proximity.  Pursuant to Maryland Rule 16-101, Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals appoints a Circuit Administrative Judge in each judicial circuit.  The Circuit Administrative Judge is generally responsible for the administration of the several courts within the judicial circuit.  Each County has an Administrative Judge to oversee the operations of that County’s Circuit Court.  The Circuit Administrative Judge supervises the County Administrative Judges within the judicial circuit and is able to perform the duties of a County Administrative Judge when necessary.

All but two of these counties (Baltimore City and Prince George’s County) are fairly conservative in terms of numbers of the jury pool.

Court of Special Appeals of Maryland

The Court of Special Appeals is Maryland’s intermediate appellate court. See CJP § 1-401 (establishing the Court). The Court has appellate jurisdiction to consider any and all appeals from final judgments from the Circuit Courts, orphans courts, or the Maryland Tax Court.   The Court of Special Appeals does not have discretion to deny consideration of cases, unlike the Court of Appeals.  As a result, the Court of Special Appeals considers significantly more cases than the highest appellate court. The Court of Special Appeals and Court of Appeals both sit in Annapolis, MD. 

 The Court of Special Appeals currently has twelve sitting judges, but by statute it should have thirteen.  See CJP § 1-402.  Seven of the judges represent one of the seven Appellate Judicial Circuits and the remaining 5 are designated “at large.  The judges sit in panels of three to hear oral argument, and one of the judges is assigned to write the opinion of the panel on behalf of the court.  Two of the three judges must agree on the disposition of the case in order to render a decision.  See CJP § 1-403(b).  Upon an order by a majority of the incumbent judges of the court, a hearing or rehearing of the court “in banc” may be required, in which case a quorum of the court must sit and a majority vote of those sitting will decide the case. 

Court of Appeals of Maryland

The Court of Appeals is the highest appellate court in the State of Maryland. CJP § 1-301 (establishing the Court). The Court of Appeals has seven judges each representing one of seven Appellate Judicial Circuits.  The Judges all sit for each case and take part in each opinion issued by the Court.  Occasionally, retired judges are called upon to sit and hear cases when a Judge is required to recuse him or herself from consideration of a case.

The Court of Appeals has discretion to consider cases only those cases that in its review are “desirable and in the public interest.”  CJP § 12-203.  There are numerous ways that a case might become positioned for consideration by the Court of Appeals.

Parties that wish to appeal a final judgment of the Court of Special Appeals may appeal to the Court by petitioning the Court for a writ of certiorari.  If the Court wishes to hear the case, then it will issue a writ of certiorari “requiring that the case be certified to it for review and determination.”  CJP § 12-203.  It is possible for the Court to require a case to be certified to it prior to a determination in the Court of Special Appeals on the same case, in that instance the case has “by-passed” the intermediate appellate court. 

A party may directly appeal to the Court of Appeals after a final judgment is issued from a Circuit Court on the party’s appeal from a District Court or administrative agency decision and the Court finds that “[r]eview is necessary to security uniformity of decision, as where the same statute has been construed differently by two or more judges;” or other circumstances require consideration in the public interest.  CJP § 12-305.

 In addition to granting petitions for review, the Court of Appeals may be called upon to “answer a question of law certified to it by a court of the United States or by an appellate court of another state or of a tribe[.]” CJP § 12-603.