The structure of government in the United States is laid out in the Constitution. The Constitution describes three co-equal branches of government:
- The national, or federal, legislature is called the "Congress." It is made up of elected officials from each state. These officials are responsible for enacting the laws.
- The executive branch, headed by the President, is responsible for running the government and enforcing the laws that Congress enacts.
- The Judicial branch is responsible for interpreting the laws and settling formal disputes between people or between people and the government.
Legislative branch. The Congress is bicameral, which means it has two chambers. The Senate is made up of two elected representatives from each state, for a total of 100 members. Each senator serves a term of six years.
The other chamber, the House of Representatives, has 435 members. There are more members in the House than the Senate because House members serve smaller groups of people. Each state is divided into sections, called districts. The number of districts varies greatly from state to state. Each district elects a member to the House of Representatives for a two-year term.
The Congress enacts federal law. The Executive administers and enforces the law.
Executive branch. The executive is the President, who is elected for a four-year term. A President can serve only two terms. A Vice-president is elected with the President. The Vice- president assumes control in the event the President is unable to govern.
The executive branch is made up of various departments and agencies, which see that the law is implemented. (For example, the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) administers the environmental laws the Congress enacts. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) administers immigration laws.) A department or agency will accomplish this task by writing "regulations" and enforcing them. Regulations are rules that have the effect of law. Department directors are appointed by the president.
Judicial branch. The federal courts deal with matters involving U.S. law or disputes between people of two different states. Federal law is limited to matters of national importance, such as immigration, environmental law, federal taxation, civil rights, federal criminal law, and U.S. Constitutional law.
The federal judicial branch has three levels. The district courts are the trial courts. Because each state has one or more districts, there are ninety-four district courts in the United States. Maine has only one district. The federal trial court in Maine is the United States District Court for the District of Maine. The district courthouses are located in Portland and Bangor. There are also specialized courts within the district court, such as the US Bankruptcy Court.
Decisions of the district court can be appealed to a "circuit court." There are twelve circuit courts in the United States. The role of the appellate courts is to determine if the law was applied correctly. Maine is a part of the First Circuit, which also includes New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Puerto Rico. Appeals from the First Circuit are made to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The highest court in the United States is the Supreme Court. It consists of a Chief Justice and eight associate justices. Each year the Court hears a limited number of cases. Most of these are taken at the Court's discretion. The cases can originate in federal or state courts and usually involve issues of constitutional law.
The structure of state government in Maine is the same as in the federal government. The executive in Maine is referred to as the Governor. The two chambers of the legislative body are the Senate and the House of Representatives. However, unlike at the federal level, members of both chambers serve two-year terms. In addition, Maine legislators are permitted to serve only four consecutive terms before they are required to step down. They can run again, however, after a two-year break.
Maine courts. The Maine court system has three levels: the District Court, the Superior Court and the Maine Supreme Judicial Court. Judges in Maine are nominated by the Governor, confirmed by the legislature, and serve seven year terms.
The district court conducts hearings and handles matters in which a jury is not involved. The district courts have limited jurisdiction. This means that they can hear only certain types of cases, such as small claims, minor criminal offenses, domestic relations, complaints for protection from abuse (See Domestic Violence), evictions and matters involving juveniles. In addition there is a division that handles family matters such as separation, divorce and property settlements. Some divorces are handled by Case Management Officers (CMOs), who have the authority of judges. (See Family Law) Appeals from the District Court are taken by the Law Court (See below), with the exception of evictions, small claims, juvenile, probation revocations and bail reviews. In those cases, appeals are taken up by the Superior Court.
The probate court is a specialized court that hears matters involving guardianship, trusts and estates and adoptions. Probate court judges are elected by the residents of the county in which they serve.
Maine also has two "drug courts": adult and juvenile. The adult drug court is intended to help offenders who have substance abuse problems. In exchange for a guilty plea and the possibility of a greatly reduced sentence, an offender can enter a supervised program that emphasizes counseling services and drug testing with immediate sanctions and incentives. Clients of the drug court are permitted to remain in the community during participation in drug court.
The juvenile drug court operates in a similar manner, but may also provide the juvenile ancillary services including educational opportunities, job training and recreationa activities. In addition, the juvenile's parents or guardians may be required to participate in order to strengthen the family unit.
The Superior Court is a court of general jurisdiction, which means that it can hear all types of cases, both criminal and civil. The Superior Court is the only court in which jury trials are conducted. In addition, it hears some types of appeals from the District Court. There are 16 Superior Court justices (judges) in Maine, one for each county. However, the justices can hear cases in any county. Appeals from the Superior Court are taken to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court.
Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court is the final court of appeal in the Maine Judicial System. The Court has a Chief Justice and six associate justices. The Court hears appeals from both the Superior Court and the District Court. When it sits in this context, it is referred to as the "Law Court."
The Court is authorized to provide the Governor with advisory opinions when requested to do so. In addition, the Court is responsible for the discipline of lawyers and judges.
Right to Interpretation in Maine’s Courts.
It is critical that you understand everything that is said in Court, and that everything you say is understood by others. If you have limited English, or you are deaf or hard of hearing, you have the right to an interpreter. Any time you have contact with the Court system, the Court must provide an interpreter, at no cost to you.
The Court should arrange for an interpreter - either in person or a telephone interpreter. You are not required to bring someone with you to interpret. In fact, you should not rely on a family member or friend who is not a professional interpreter. Even people who are bilingual often make serious mistakes if they have not had professional training.
The Court clerks must arrange for you to have an interpreter for any contact you have with the Court - with the exception of asking for directions in the courthouse. In that limited situation, the clerk may use your bi-lingual friend or family member to help you find your way around the courthouse.
If the Court ever forgets to ask you if you want an interpreter, ask for one. Even if you think your English is good enough to understand most of what is being said in the Court, it is important that you understand absolutely everything that is said, and for absolutely everything you say to be understood precisely. If you speak English but are more comfortable speaking in another language, ask for an interpreter.
Updated September 2008