[photo, Courthouse, 95 West Washington St. Hagerstown, Maryland] Circuit Courts originated in the colonial period as County Courts. In 1775, just before the Revolutionary War, their functions were suspended. After Maryland adopted its first State Constitution in 1776, the County Courts reopened and justices were appointed for every county in April 1777.

For the counties, Circuit Courts were established to succeed the County Courts in 1851 (Constitution of 1851, Art. IV, secs. 8, 9).

Courthouse, Hagerstown, Maryland, June 2004. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

Circuit Courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction. Their jurisdiction is very broad but generally covers major civil cases and more serious criminal matters. Circuit Courts also may decide appeals from the District Court of Maryland and certain administrative agencies.

Nominated by trial courts judicial nominating commissions, Circuit Court judges are appointed by the Governor and then must successfully stand for election to continue in office for a term of fifteen years. The judge's name is placed on the ballot in the first general election that occurs at least one year following the vacancy the judge was appointed to fill (Const., Art. IV, sec. 5). The judge may be opposed formally by one or more qualified members of the bar, with the successful candidate being elected to a fifteen-year term (Const., Art. IV, secs. 3, 5, 11, 12, 19-26).

When Circuit Courts were established to succeed the County Courts in 1851, provision was made for a clerk to serve the court in each county (Constitution of 1851, Art. IV, sec. 14). Originally elected to a six-year term by the voters, the Clerk's term was shortened to four years in 1926 (Const., Art. XVII, added by Chapter 227, Acts of 1922, ratified Nov. 7, 1922; Const., Art. IV, sec. 25).

Today, the Clerk of the Circuit Court is elected by the voters to a four-year term (Chapter 99, Acts of 1956, ratified Nov. 6, 1956; Const., Art. IV, secs. 25-26; Code Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, secs. 2-201 through 2-213).

Under the Circuit Court Clerk are six departments: Civil, Criminal, Juvenile and Child Support, Land and Licensing, Recording and Licensing, and Records Management.

For the Circuit Court, the Court Administrator oversees the Assignment Office, Family Support Services, and the Law Library.

Under Maryland's first State Consitutiton of 1776, two sheriffs were to be elected in each county by the voters. One of these would be commissioned as Sheriff by the Governor to serve a three-year term. In the event of death, removal, or other incapacity of the incumbant, the "second" sheriff could replace him. At that time, to be eligible for the office of Sheriff, a person had to have been at least twenty-one years of age, a County resident, and a holder of real and personal property valued at one thousand pounds current money (Constitution of 1776, sec. 42).

By 1851, while the qualifications for office remained almost the same, the property requirement was removed, and a two-year term was adopted. Also, provision was made for Baltimore City to have a sheriff. Anyone interested in becoming sheriff had to have been a citizen of the State for the five years preceding the election (Constitution of 1851, Art. IV, sec. 20).

With the Constitution of 1864, for the first time, voters began to directly elect one sheriff for each county and Baltimore City. To qualify for office, the minimum age was raised to at least twenty-five (Constitution of 1864, Art. IV, sec. 49).

The Constitution of 1867 did not alter the requirements of office (Const. of 1867, Art. IV, sec. 44). By constitutional amendment in 1922, the term of office was lengthened to four years (Chapter 227, Acts of 1922, ratified Nov. 7, 1922; Const., Art. XVII, sec. 7).

An officer of the Circuit Court, the Sheriff is elected by the voters to a four-year term. To be eligible for the office of Sheriff, a person must be at least twenty-five years of age and must have been a County resident for at least five years immediately preceding election (Const., Art. IV, sec. 44; Code Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, secs. 2-301 through 2-311).

The Sheriff is responsible for the Detention Center, the Judicial Services Division, and the Patrol Division.

The predecessor of the Detention Center was the County Jail. Constructed at the end of the eighteenth century, the Jail was located in Hagerstown in an alley between Washington and Franklin Streets. A log structure, it had no windows, and was replaced in 1826 by a new jail, built of logs, on North Jonathan St. That building was destroyed by fire in 1857. Rebuilt in 1858, and remodeled in 1888, it was replaced by the Detention Center which opened in June 1984. The old Jail was demolished in 1985.


The District Court of Maryland began operating as a court of record in July 1971. It had been created by constitutional amendment in 1970 (Chapter 789, Acts of 1969, ratified Nov. 3, 1970; Const., Art. IV, secs. 41A through 41-I). In Washington County, the Court replaced the county trial magistrates.

In minor civil and criminal matters, and in virtually all violations of the Motor Vehicle Law, the District Court has jurisdiction. The exclusive jurisdiction of the District Court generally includes all landlord and tenant cases; replevin actions; motor vehicle violations; and criminal cases if the penalty is less than three years imprisonment or does not exceed a fine of $2,500, or both. The District Court has concurrent jurisdiction in misdemeanors and certain enumerated felonies, but has little equity jurisdiction.

Small claims (civil cases involving amounts not exceeding $5,000) also come under the jurisdiction of the District Court. In civil cases involving amounts over $5,000 (but not exceeding $30,000), the District Court has concurrent jurisdiction with the circuit courts.

Since the District Court provides no juries, a person entitled to and electing a jury trial must proceed to the Circuit Court (Code 1957, Art. 27, secs. 586, 594D, 616 1/ 2, 643A; Code Courts and Judicial Proceedings Article, secs. 1-601 through 1-608, 2-601 through 2-607, 4-101 through 4-405, 6-403, 7-301, 7-302, 9-201, 11-402, 11-701 through 11-703, 12-401 through 12-404; Code Family Law Article, secs. 4-501 through 4-510).

District Court judges are appointed to ten-year terms, by the Governor with Senate consent. They do not stand for election (Const., Art. IV, sec. 41D).

The Administrative Clerk in each district maintains and operates the clerical staff and work within the district, including dockets, records, and all necessary papers (Code Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, secs. 2-603).

Upon recommendation of the District Administrative Judge, the Chief Judge of the District Court appoints the Administrative Clerk (Const., Art. IV, sec. 41F).

District commissioners issue arrest warrants, and set bail or collateral.

Commissioners in a district are appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the District Administrative Judge, with approval of the Chief Judge of the District Court (Const., Art. IV, sec. 41(a)(2); Code Courts & Judicial Proceedings Article, secs. 2-602, 2-607).


Functions of the Orphans' Court began in the colonial period under the Prerogative Court, headed by the Commissary General. For each county, a deputy commissary was appointed to handle matters relating to the administration of estates. In February 1777, an Orphans' Court was authorized in each county to serve as the County's probate court.(Chapter 8, Acts of 1777).

The Orphans' Court supervises the handling of estates of people who have died (with or without a will) while owning property in their sole name. The Court also has jurisdiction over guardianships of minors

Orphans' Court judges are responsible for approving administration accounts, and making sure that only appropriate payments are made from estate assets and that distributions are made to the proper beneficiaries or heirs. Generally, payment of attorney's fees or personal representative's commissions made from estate assets also must be approved by the Court.

Elected by the voters to four-year terms, three judges comprise the Orphans' Court. To be eligible for the office of Orphans' Court Judge, a person must have been a citizen of the State and County resident for at least one year immediately preceding election (Const., Art. IV, sec. 40; Code Estates & Trusts Article, secs. 2-101 through 2-109). The Chief Judge is designated by the Governor (Code Estates & Trusts Article, sec. 2-107).

The Register of Wills serves as clerk to the Orphans' Court.

In 1776, the office of Register of Wills was authorized for each county by Maryland's first Constitution (Constitution of 1776, sec. 41). Originally, the Register of Wills was appointed by the Governor upon joint recommendation of the Senate and House of Delegates. With the Constitution of 1851, however, the voters began to directly elect the Register to a six-year term (Constitution of 1851, Art. IV, sec. 18; Constitution of 1864, Art. IV, sec. 46; Constitution of 1867, Art. IV, sec. 41). In 1922, quadrennial elections were authorized for registers of wills, and instituted in 1926. Since that time, registers have been elected to four-year terms (Chapter 227, Acts of 1922, ratified 1924; Const., Art. XVII, sec. 7).

Elected by the voters, the Register serves a four-year term (Const., Art. IV, sec. 41; Code Estates & Trusts Article, secs. 2-201 through 2-212).

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