First, Maryland, then Connecticut, now Maine considered getting rid of partisan elections for probate courts

Most states use multiple selection methods for their courts, with some judges appointed, others elected, etc. Three states in particular (Connecticut, Maryland, and now Maine) want to end partisan elections for one particular type of court: probate.

First, some background.

Most states do not have separate courts to handle probate matters, instead such matters are handled as a division of another court (Probate Court vs. Superior Court, Probate Division). New Hampshire, for example, consolidated its Probate Court into the newly created Circuit Court, Probate Division only a few years ago. About 15 states do, however, still retain courts whose primary or sole purpose is probate matters

  • Alabama Probate
  • Colorado Denver Probate (Probate matters in other parts of state handled in District Court)
  • Connecticut Probate
  • Georgia Probate
  • Indiana Probate (Remains only in St. Joseph’s County; probate matters in other parts of state handled in Superior or Circuit Court)
  • Maine Probate
  • Maryland Orphan’s (Montgomery and Harford counties, probate matters handled in Circuit Court)
  • Massachusetts Family & Probate
  • Michigan Probate
  • New Mexico Probate
  • New York Surrogates’
  • Rhode Island Probate
  • South Carolina Probate
  • Tennessee Probate (Shelby County only)
  • Vermont Probate

In addition to their unique jurisdiction, what sets these courts apart is that they often have a judicial selection system that is not in keeping with most of the other judges in the state. For example, the judges of Georgia’s higher courts (Supreme, Court of Appeals, Superior, State) are non-partisan races; Probate Court races are partisan.

This year’s particular interest in changing the method of judicial selection started January 23 in Maryland where Orphan’s Court judges are elected on a partisan basis. SB 327 was filed January 23 to require nonpartisan elections instead. An identical House bill (HB 515) was filed a week later on January 30.

The next state to consider the issue was Connecticut, where Probate Court judges also run in partisan elections. HJR 17 is a constitutional amendment that would shift the Probate Court judges into the state’s existing merit selection system, which is used for the state’s other courts (Supreme, Appellate, Superior).

The third state to consider such a move was Maine. HB 369, filed February 19, would end partisan elections for Probate Judges, Registers of Probate and Registers of Deeds. Instead, the offices would be subject to gubernatorial appointment with senate confirmation in the same way all other state judges are currently appointed.