The Maryland General Assembly late last month overwhelmingly passed legislation that would change the names of the Maryland appellate courts should voters agree in a 2022 referendum. Currently, the state’s highest court is known as the Court of Appeals of Maryland, making it one of only two states’ highest courts not named a “supreme court”. Maryland’s intermediate appellate court, which handles most first instance appeals is named the Court of Special Appeals, which can seemingly create confusion.
Since both courts were created under the state’s current constitution, a referendum is required to change their respective names. If the referendum passes, the Court of Appeals would become the “Supreme Court of Maryland” and its seven judges would be called “justices.” The 15 judge Court of Special Appeals would become the “Appellate Court of Maryland.” Otherwise, they will remain the same courts in function. Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, both courts will be moving to a new location, given funding has been approved for a new appellate court building in Annapolis, the state capitol.
Many contend that a change would allow the courts’ names to reflect their respective caseloads more accurately. While the Court of Appeals’ name traces back to the colonial era, the Court of Special Appeals was originally founded in 1966 as an appellate court for certain criminal appeals, hence the name of “Special Appeals”. However, the special court’s jurisdiction was expanded shortly thereafter to include most appellate cases and currently, it is viewed as the court of “general” appeals (at least functionally, if not in name).
The natural desire to describe the court’s role and function more accurately in Maryland’s court system makes sense and explains the General Assembly’s overwhelming support of the legislation authorizing the name change and leading to the referendum. No word yet on whether the “justices” of the new “Supreme Court of Maryland” will continue wearing bright red robes (a pre-revolutionary period tradition) instead of the more common black robes found on other judges.