The Renewed Push to Rename Maryland’s Appellate Courts

By John Grimm

It’s no secret that the names of Maryland’s appellate courts are not to be taken literally: The Court of Special Appeals hears all appeals, while the Court of Appeals hears only special ones. Even lawyers admitted in Maryland who do not practice regularly in state court stumble over this nomenclature, and for non-lawyers or out-of-state lawyers (or even judges), the courts’ names provide little useful information about their roles in the Maryland judiciary.

A proposed amendment to the Maryland Constitution—SB 595 and its companion HB 1329—would eliminate this confusion, by renaming the State’s appellate courts. Under the amendment, the Court of Appeals would be renamed the Supreme Court of Maryland, and its members would get a title-bump from “judge” to “justice.” The Court of Special Appeals, for its part, would be renamed the Maryland Appellate Court.

If ratified, this amendment would clear up a confusing set of labels that are more an accident of history than a deliberate naming convention. “Court of Appeals” was an accurate descriptor through 1966, while the State’s highest appellate court was also its only appellate court. Likewise, when the Court of Special Appeals was created to ease the Court of Appeals’s criminal caseload, and thus had limited appellate jurisdiction, it was indeed a court of special appeals.[1] But now that the intermediate appellate court’s jurisdiction includes “any reviewable judgment, decree, order or other action of a circuit court, and an orphans’ court,”[2] and the high court’s caseload is largely based on the court’s own discretion,[3] it seems reasonable to revamp both courts’ names.

Updating the courts’ names would do more than just make it easier to understand their functions. Arguably, neither court’s current name reflects the court’s dignity and stature in the judiciary. “Court of Appeals” suggests an intermediate appellate court, as in the case of the United States Courts of Appeals. As Chief Judge Barbera testified to the General Assembly, most people expect a state’s highest court to include the word “supreme” in its title.[4] Likewise, the phrase “special appeals” does not connote a full-fledged appellate court that sets precedent and is the final arbiter for most cases in the State.

At this stage, it looks doubtful that the amendment will be passed this session. The legislature held hearings on the proposal in February, but no action has been taken since, and sine die is days away. Even if nothing comes of the bill this year, however, it deserves the attention of the bar and the appellate community. Renaming Maryland’s appellate courts would be a logical way to make their role clearer to the public, and to ensure that their importance to the State is better understood.

[1] See generally Walston v. Sun Cab Co., Inc., 267 Md. 559 (1973).

[2] Md. Code Ann., Cts. & Jud. Proc. § 12-308.

[3] See id. § 12-305 (providing for review by writ of certiorari).

[4] Only New York and the District of Columbia also refer to their court of last resort as the Court of Appeals, and neither is an ideal model. The D.C. Court of Appeals is the District’s only appellate court, and New York’s court names are famously unintuitive: New York’s trial court is called the Supreme Court.


2 responses to “The Renewed Push to Rename Maryland’s Appellate Courts”

  1. Paul T. Gilbert says :

    So far as I know, the irony of the names of the Maryland Appellate Courts was first commented on by my father, Chief Judge Richard Paul Gilbert, CSA/Md in 1982. He also noted that the Court of Special Appeals was the only Court in the US with its own belt buckle: CSA!

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