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.
[photo, Harford County Courthouse, 20 West Courtland St., Bel Air, Maryland] For the counties, Circuit Courts were established to succeed the County Courts in 1851 (Constitution of 1851, Art. IV, secs. 8, 9).

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.

Harford County Courthouse, 20 West Courtland St., Bel Air, Maryland, March 2005. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

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).

The Circuit Court is aided by the Family Recovery Court.

In 1776, Maryland's first constitution authorized County Court justices to appoint clerks for their respective courts (Constitution of 1776, sec. 47). By 1836, the Governor was empowered to name county court clerks to seven-year terms (Chapter 224, Acts of 1836, confirmed by Chapter 160, Acts of 1837).

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). The Constitution of 1851 also provided that the voters would elect the Clerk to a six-year term. In 1926, the Clerk's term was shortened to four years (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).

For the public, the Circuit Court Clerk performs certain court duties, such as filing, docketing, and maintaining legal records; recording documents that involve title to real estate; and collecting the fees, commissions, and taxes related to these functions. The Clerk also issues certain licenses. In this process, the Clerk's Office collects and distributes funds on behalf of the State, and Harford County and its municipalities.

Operating expenses for the Clerk's Office primarily come from State General Funds, and certain support services, such as payroll and invoice processing and maintenance of budgetary accounting records, are provided by the Adminstrative Office of the Courts.

For the Circuit Court, the Court Administrator oversees the Community Work Service Program, Court-Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) for Children, the Office of Family Court Services, the Family Law Self-Help Center, Jury 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).

Since Harford County does not have a county police force, the Office of Sheriff functions as the law enforcement agency of the County. The Office serves the unincorporated parts of the County; supports municipal law enforcement units; provides security and other support for the courts; and maintains the County jail or detention center.

By memorandum of understanding of October 26, 2016, the County Sheriff's Office has agreed to perform certain functions of immigration officers for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Participating Sheriff's Office personnel are subject to ICE supervision while performing immigration-related duties pursuant to the memorandum of understanding (Immigration & Nationality Act, as amended, sec. 287(g)).

Under the Sheriff are three bureaus: Correctional Services, Police Operations, and Services and Support. The Office of Sheriff also is aided by the Police Commission.

The Correctional Services Bureau is responsible for the County's Detention Center. Opened in 1973, the Center can hold 762 inmates.

Under the Bureau are two divisions: Operations, and Support Services.



[photo, District Court Building, Mary E. W. Risteau Multi-Service Center, 2 South Bond St., Bel Air, Maryland]


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 Harford County, the Court replaced the county trial magistrates.

District Court Building, Mary E. W. Risteau Multi-Service Center, 2 South Bond St., Bel Air, Maryland, March 2005. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

In minor civil and criminal matters, and in virtually all violations of the Motor Vehicle Law (Code Transportation Article, Titles II-27), 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 Courts & 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 Criminal Procedure Article, sec. 6-101; 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 District Court is aided by the Adult Opiate Recovery Court, and the Mental Health Court.

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).


[photo, Fountain before Harford County Courthouse, 20 West Courtland St., Bel Air, Maryland] 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

Fountain before Harford County Courthouse, 20 West Courtland St., Bel Air, Maryland, March 2005. Photo by Diane F. Evartt.

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.

While in most Maryland counties a separate Orphans' Court oversees probate, in Harford County, Circuit Court judges sit as an orphans' court (Chapter 374, Acts of 1972, ratified Nov. 7, 1972; Const., Art. IV, sec. 40; Code Estates & Trusts Article, secs. 2-101 through 2-303).

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).

The Register of Wills serves as clerk to the Orphans' Court, overseeing the administration of decedents' estates, and providing assistance (such as providing proper forms) to persons administering those estates. The Register also collects inheritance taxes and other fees. Inheritance tax collections (less the commissions earned on those collections) are remitted to the State's General Fund.

Certain support services, such as payroll, maintenance of accounting records, and related fiscal functions, are provided to the Register of Wills by the Comptroller of Maryland.

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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