Colonial Days to Early State History
The Circuit Court derives from Colonial Maryland’s General Court, which resolved most legal disputes in the colony by decision of a group including the colonial Governor and legislators. With the adoption of its first Constitution in 1776, Maryland, like the United States, redefined the “General Court” as an independent court, separated from the other branches of government. The General Court had state-wide general trial jurisdiction, and also served as an intermediate appellate court from local justices of the peace and county courts. In the first decades of the new nation, Maryland’s General Court held a more esteemed reputation than the Court of Appeals—then, as now, Maryland’s highest court. Appointees to the new United States Supreme Court included four of Maryland’s General Court judges, including Prince George’s County’s Gabriel Duvall, but no judges from Maryland’s Court of Appeals.
1805 Maryland Constitution
In 1805, an amendment to the Maryland Constitution abolished the General Court sitting in Annapolis, recognizing the inconvenience to the growing population. Instead, County Courts, grouped into six judicial districts, held all trials. The Governor appointed a Chief Judge and two associate judges in each district; the Chief Judge of each district also served as a judge of the Court of Appeals.
1851 Creation of Circuit Courts
In 1851, a new Maryland Constitution substantially changed the court system. The Constitution divided the trial courts into four districts and eight circuits—creating the circuit courts generally as they still exist. Next, it mandated the election of all judges from the district in which they served—including judges of the Court of Appeals, now chosen separately from the judges of the trial court.
1971 Creation of District Court
The basic structure of the circuit courts established in 1851 remains to this day. With the creation of the District Court in 1971, 120 years after creation of the Circuit Court, the trial courts now share cases previously heard only in the Circuit Court. By granting the new court limited jurisdiction over matters previously reserved to the Circuit Court, the District Courts relieved the Circuit Court of motor vehicle violations, landlord-tenant actions, and certain civil and criminal matters. However, the Circuit Court retains limited appellate jurisdiction to hear cases originating in the District Court and administrative agencies, including some as new trials.
From its earliest origins, the circuit court remains the trial court of general jurisdiction in Maryland. The Circuit Court for Prince George’s County stands ready to serve the community as a fair forum for justice, welcoming all.
Dash, Abraham, “An Essay on the Background and Development of the Maryland Judiciary,” (1986).