Voters approve new names for Court of Appeals and Special Appeals

From left to right, former Chief Justices Joseph M. Getty, Robert M. Bell and Mary Ellen Barbera as well as current Chief Justice Matthew J. Fader. The position will be called “chief justice” after changes approved by voters on Tuesday. (Maryland Judiciary)

“Justice” will come to Maryland.

Maryland voters on Tuesday approved a constitutional amendment to change the name of the state’s highest court from the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court of Maryland and the title of its jurists from judge to judge, the judge in chief becoming the chief judge.

The name of the Maryland Intermediate Court will also change from the Special Court of Appeals to the Maryland Court of Appeals. His judges, however, will always be called judges.

The unofficial voting margin Wednesday afternoon was 73% to 27%, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

No date has been set for the name and title changes.

“The Court of Appeals and the Special Court of Appeals have a long and storied history under these names,” Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals Matthew J. Fader said in a statement Wednesday.

“Both courts will continue to honor this history as we continue what those before us have worked so hard to build,” Fader added. “The new names more closely align the name of each court with what each court does, and should therefore help promote clarity and avoid confusion.”

Chief Justice of the Court of Special Appeals, E. Gregory Wells, said in a statement Wednesday that “I hope the voter-approved constitutional change in the names of the two courts will clear up any confusion among the public, lawyers and judges from other jurisdictions on the roles of our respective jurisdictions. This is a welcome and much needed change.”

Last year, the General Assembly approved the measure for referendum at the request of then Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals, Mary Ellen Barbera.

Barbera said then that many non-lawyers and out-of-state lawyers correctly assumed that Maryland’s court of last resort would be called “Supreme” – as it is in all others. States except New York, which also has a Supreme Court of Appeals.

“Efforts to resolve the confusion caused by the names of Maryland’s appellate courts are not new, dating back to the Constitutional Commission and Convention of 1967-68 and then again throughout the 1990s,” said Barbera after the amendment was approved by the legislature. “I am pleased that the General Assembly supported a long-needed change that will help people in Maryland and beyond better understand the courts of Maryland.”

Fader, then chief justice of the Court of Special Appeals, told lawmakers last year that the intermediate court’s name change was also necessary because the current name had become a “misnomer”.

The “Special Court of Appeals” was right when it considered only a “special” class of cases, namely criminal appeals, said Fader, whom Gov. Larry Hogan appointed chief justice of the Court of Appeal in April.

Fader said last year that the Special Court of Appeals has for decades heard all manner of appeals from state circuit courts.

He added that the word “special” has led many nonlawyers and attorneys outside of Maryland to assume that the state’s second highest court is above the Court of Appeals.

The impetus for the shift from “judge” to “justice” began with former Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals Robert M. Bell, who resigned in 2013 after reaching mandatory retirement age judiciary for 70 years.

Bell used to chastise attorneys who mistakenly referred to High Court justices as “judges,” telling them there was no justice in Maryland.

Senator Douglas JJ Peters and Del. Ron Watson, both Democrats from Prince George’s County, were the main sponsors of the proposed amendment in 2021.

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