Peter L. Murray


For the entire 178 years of Maine's statehood, its Supreme Judicial Court, “sitting as the Law Court,” has served as Maine's appellate court of first and last resort for all appeals from its trial courts of general jurisdiction. Over this time span, and particularly over the last three decades, the growth in number and complexity of civil and criminal appeals has placed the Law Court under an extremely heavy burden of cases. The sheer number of the appeals which the Law Court is expected to consider and decide risks exceeding the capacity of the institution for careful, thorough, and deliberate decision making. Maine seems to be suffering from an overload of its single appellate court which may jeopardize the quality of justice available to its litigants and citizens. Potential ways of easing the Law Court's case overload include expansion of the Law Court, making most appeals discretionary, use of appellate panels in the Superior Court, and the establishment of a new intermediate appellate court to share the appellate workload. Expansion or panelization of the Law Court, eliminating appeal as of right, and mixing trial and appellate function in the Superior Court are “solutions” which may raise more quality problems than they solve. Forty states maintain intermediate courts to hear and decide the bulk of trial court appeals. In most of these states the courts of last resort limit their dockets to appeals in the most serious cases, to cases which raise serious constitutional issues, and to other cases of particular significance. Many states have established their intermediate appellate courts in the last thirty years. Their experience in solving judicial crises of similar proportion suggests that the time for a “Maine Appeals Court” may have come.

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