The Supreme Court of Maryland is Maryland’s highest court. For most of its 200+ years, it was called the Maryland Court of Appeals. The Court was originally created by the Maryland Constitution of 1776. It is located in Annapolis, the state capital. The court’s origins go back to 1694 when royal governor Francis Nicholson first established the Court of Appeals, our state’s “supreme court.”
Maryland’s highest court hears cases almost exclusively by way of certiorari, a discretionary review process. In other words, it only considers cases that it believes have issues that are worth addressing. If the court does not believe there is an issue that needs to be given further consideration or analysis, it will deny certiorari and refuse to hear the case.
A petition for writ of certiorari filed in the Maryland Supreme Court seeking the court to overrule a decision of the Appellate Court of Maryland (f/k/a the “Court of Special Appeals”) must be submitted no later than 15 days from the date of the order of the Court of Special Appeals. Occasionally, the Supreme Court will snag an appeal directly from a Circuit Court and bypass the intermediate appellate court. This happened to us in one of our cases. But it is rare.
Another important function of the Maryland Supreme Court is that the court may adopt rules of judicial administration, practice, and procedure that have the force of law. The most notable example of this is Maryland Rules which sets forth the rules of practice and procedure for Maryland state courts.
The Maryland Supreme Court also supervises the exercise of the disciplinary and reinstatement powers of the local courts, as the Supreme Court has original and complete jurisdiction over attorney discipline matters. A court must insist upon the maintenance of the integrity of the Bar and prevent the transgressions of an individual lawyer from bringing its image into disrepute.
This high court has exclusive jurisdiction over death penalty appeals (a thing of the past), lawsuits involving redistricting/gerrymandering, issuing advisory opinions to federal courts, and the removal of elected officials.
This is the current makeup of the Maryland Supreme Court in 2023:
- Hon. Matthew Fader (Chief Justice)
- Hon. Shirley M. Watts
- Hon. Michele D. Hotten
- Hon. Brynja M. Booth
- Hon. Jonathan Biran
- Hon. Steven B. Gould
- Hon. Angela M. Eaves
Although the Justices of the Maryland Supreme Court are appointed by the Governor, they are subject to approval voting every few years. This is an odd system where voters confirm whether nominated judges should continue on the bench by a yes or no vote. No Supreme Court justice in Maryland has ever been voted out by this process.
The Maryland Supreme Court judges have traditionally (and remarkably) been very nonpartisan, nonpolitical judges. Governors Ehrlich, O’Malley, and Hogan all seemed to set party affiliation aside and select the most qualified judge. This has resulted in a court that traditionally avoids judicial activism or decisions that appear to have strong political motivations.
It is the opposite of the U.S. Supreme Court where political affiliation tells you almost everything about how a justice will vote. Dissenting opinions are not infrequent on the Maryland Supreme Court. But they are never personal attacks on the majority opinion. Our lawyers get frustrated with the court because it is sometimes stuck in the 19th century. But we have honest people trying to make the best calls they can. Marylanders should be proud of their court.
One thing that surprises people about the Maryland Supreme Court is that, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, retired judges often stay on the bench. It is an odd rule that allows retired judges to be recalled into service on the court. So you will regularly see retired judges coming back and deciding cases, particularly Judge Alan Wilner, Judge Sally Adkins, and Judge Lynne A. Battaglia.
Often major 4-3 rulings involve one or more retired judges who return to the court. Retired judges give Maryland a very deep bench of knowledge and experience. But whether there is wisdom in having an inconsistent court is another question that is harder to answer. In the past, there were too many obstacles in getting opinions back from the court.
Renaming the Court of Appeals
For over 200 years, the Maryland Supreme Court was called the Maryland Court of Appeals. This made it somewhat of an outlier because in almost all other states, the highest appellate court is called the state “Supreme Court.” Maryland and New York were the only 2 states in which the highest appellate court was not called the state Supreme Court. The name created a lot of confusion, especially considering that the lower appellate court in Maryland was previously called the Court of Special Appeals. These names left many, especially people outside Maryland, understandably confused about which was the highest court.
It was this confusion that eventually prompted the state legislature to propose an amendment to the state constitution that would rename the court. The state legislature was wholeheartedly in favor of renaming. The bill to put the renaming amendment on the 2022 ballot passed the Maryland Senate by a vote of 40-7. Last month, the House of Delegates passed it by an even more decisive margin of 125-10. In the 2022 election, Maryland voters approved the constitutional amendment to rename the Court of Appeals the Maryland Supreme Court and the Court of Special Appeals the Appellate Court of Maryland.
Frequently Asked Questions
Below are some of the more frequently asked questions about Maryland’s appellate courts.
How Many Appellate Court Levels Does Maryland Have?
Maryland has two appellate court levels comprised of a lower appellate court (in which all cases can be appealed by right) and a higher appellate court (which cases are heard on petition for certiorari). Maryland’s lower appellate court is now called the Appellate Court of Maryland (f/k/a the Court of Special Appeals) and the higher court is the Maryland Supreme Court.
How Many Judges Are on the Maryland Supreme Court?
Maryland’s Supreme Court is comprised of seven judges (now called “justices”). One of the seven judges acts as “chief judge” and maintains administrative control over the functioning of the court. Cases are decided by a majority vote of the judges.
How Are Judges Appointed to Maryland’s Supreme Court?
Judges to Maryland’s Supreme Court are nominated for appointment by the Maryland Governor. The Maryland State Senate confirms the appointment. The process is very similar to the appointment and confirmation of justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Once appointed, judges on the Supreme Court must run for continuation in office by an unopposed election. This is mainly a formality as no appellate judge in Maryland has ever been voted out in their confirmation election.