A Civics Lesson

We have three branches of government in the State of Maryland. The Legislative Branch makes the laws. The Executive Branch carries out the laws. The Judicial Branch decides cases and interprets the laws.

The Attorney General is part of the Executive Branch. He offers advice to the Legislature and to the various departments of the Executive Branch, and he represents the State before the Court of Special Appeal, the Court of Appeals, and the federal courts. He does not decide the meaning of laws.

The Judicial Branch does that.

So the Legislature may have an opinion about what they intended a law to do, and the Attorney General may offer his opinion as well, but the courts have the final say about the meaning of laws.

There is a pecking order among the courts. Here in Maryland, the District Courts are on the bottom rung. The next step up is the Circuit Courts. These are the courts that are the usual triers of fact. The Court of Special Appeals is the first level appellate court in the state. The Court of Appeals is the higher appellate court. It’s word is final on state law. The only court above it is the Supreme Court of the United States and only for federal issues.

So how do the U. S. District Court for the District of Maryland and the U. S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit fit in? They are in a parallel judicial system. Of course, their rulings are binding on any state court with respect to federal issues, but federal issues only. Thus, how the U. S. District Court ruled on a federal law might provide guidance to a state court on a related issue, but the ruling would not be binding per se with respect to a case relating only to state law.

So relying on a legislative memo or report or on an Attorney General’s opinion at odds with a Circuit Court’s ruling that the Court of Appeals has refused to review is, shall we say, risky. Relying on federal court decision which the Circuit Court has ruled inapplicable when the Court of Appeals has refused to review the Circuit Court’s ruling is similarly unwise.

Here endeth the lesson.