The Massachusetts Court System is the branch of the state government that interprets and applies state laws. It works in conjunction with the executive and legislative branches of the state to ensure law and order. It comprises the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC), Appeals Court, and the seven trial court departments. Other units of the state court system are the Massachusetts Probation Service (MPS), the Executive Office of the Trial Court, and the Office of Jury Commissioner (OJC).
Court cases are typically initiated and decided in any of the seven trial court departments that have jurisdiction over such suits. Cases are generally classified as criminal or civil based on who initiates them. The State government starts off criminal cases while individuals often start civil actions. The judge or jury, who is the fact-finder in a case, decides in trial courts. A decision is reached after the fact-finder has reviewed all presented evidence and heard all the arguments by the legal representatives of both the plaintiff and defendant.
The appellate process starts when parties are dissatisfied with the judgment passed by trial court judges. In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, two appellate courts - the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) and the Appeals Court - hear appeals of the decisions made by trial court judges. While the Appeals Court has general jurisdiction on most appeals, the SJC has discretionary authority and can by-pass the Appeal Court to hear appeals directly. The SJC also has exclusive jurisdiction over all appeals on first-degree murder convictions.
The Massachusetts appellate courts do not retry cases or admit new evidence. Instead, they review the trial court proceedings to ascertain that the right law and fairness were applied in reaching their decisions. Any party dissatisfied with the ruling of the Appeals Court may apply for further review by the SJC. They may also request the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case if they lose at the SJC, especially if it involves federal law.
The SJC and the Appeals Court have seven justices and 25 justices, respectively. However, the statutory number of judges required to hear an appeal is three, and are rotated regularly to avoid compromise. The Superior Court has 82 judges; the District Court, 158; the Land Court, seven; and the Housing Court, 15. The others are the Juvenile Court, Probate and Family Court, and the Boston Municipal Court, which have 41, 48, and 31 judges, respectively. All Massachusetts judges are appointees of the State Governor whose selections are confirmed by the Governor’s Council. These judges can remain in active service until they reach 70, after which they must compulsorily retire. However, the 1978 Court Reform Act permits retired judges to serve part-time upon appointment by the Massachusetts SJC for fixed durations.
Aside from state courts, Massachusetts also plays host to federal courts, which hear federal cases and matters pertaining to federal law. Federal appellate courts also hear appeals from the state supreme court. Each court operates an administrative office that generates and maintains Massachusetts court records relevant to the judicial branch
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) is the Commonwealth’s highest appellate court. It consists of six Associate Justices headed by a Chief Justice, all of whom are the governor’s appointees. Although the governor appoints these Justices, the Governor’s Council ratifies the choices before they become official.
The seven Justices hear appeals on various criminal and civil cases from September through May from the Appeals Court and the different Departments of the trial courts. However, throughout the year, single Justice sessions are held weekly for certain motions. Some of these motions relate to cases on trial or appeal and bail reviews. Others are bar disciplinary proceedings, bar admissions petitions, and a range of statutory proceedings. Associate Justices follow a rotation schedule to preside over these single sessions every month.
Massachusetts Appeals Court
The Appeals Court is the intermediate appellate court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and has the second-highest legal authority after the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). Composed of the Chief Judge and 24 associate judges, the Appeals Court also functions as a court of general appellate jurisdiction. It reviews most trial courts' decisions. The Appeals Court also handles appeals emanating from final decisions of some administrative tribunals of the Commonwealth such as:
- The Appellate Tax Board
- The Industrial Accident Board
- The Commonwealth Employment Relations Board.
Not all appeals from the Trial Court Departments are heard by the Appeals Court. The Supreme Judicial Court can bypass the Appeals Court to directly hear the appeal of a first-degree murder conviction.
Massachusetts Superior Court
The Massachusetts Superior Court is a trial court. It has a total of 82 justices committed to delivering timely justice in line with the Massachusetts State laws. These justices sit in 20 courthouses statewide. The Superior Court has original jurisdiction in civil actions over $50,000 where equitable relief is sought. It also has jurisdiction in other cases where injunctive relief is required, such as those involving labor disputes. The Superior Court also has authority over the following:
- Some administrative proceedings.
- Medical malpractice tribunals.
- Naturalization cases in any city or town.
- First-degree murder cases.
- All other criminal cases.
Massachusetts District Court
The Massachusetts District Court has 62 locations across the Commonwealth and adjudicates many cases involving criminal, civil, mental health, housing, and juvenile matters. It also handles all felonies that attract punishments of five year-sentences or less. Some other felonies with likely higher penalties also fall under the District Court jurisdiction, alongside all misdemeanors and infringements against city/town ordinances and by-laws. The District Court hears civil cases with potential claims of $50,000 and small claims cases with damages valued at $7,000 or less. It has Appellate Divisions (appellate tribunals) in three districts of the Commonwealth, where 15 of its judges serve on a three-member panel.
Massachusetts Land Court
The Massachusetts Land Court was specially established to hear disputes on real property in the Commonwealth. It is the only court whose jurisdiction is limited to resolving issues associated with the development, use, and ownership of land. Although the Massachusetts Land Court has seven justices who sit in Boston, they may occasionally schedule sessions in other locations in the state. Land Court justices handle real property cases for the entire Commonwealth and have exclusive jurisdiction over the following:
- Registration of real property title
- Matters and disputes related to registered titles
- Foreclosure and redemption of real estate tax liens
Massachusetts Housing Court
The Massachusetts Housing Court is a trial court in the Commonwealth that makes rulings on all residential housing matters such as eviction cases and small claims. It also hears civil actions related to property damage, personal injury, discrimination, contract breach, and other housing-based claims. Led by a Chief Justice, the Housing Court Department comprises 15 judges, and it serves all the Commonwealth’s counties. The court makes decisions on code enforcements and hears appeals of local zoning board judgments regarding residential housing. The Housing Court is made up of six divisions, namely the Central, Eastern, Metro South, Northeast, and Western Divisions. Jury and jury-waived trials can also be conducted for civil matters in the Housing Court and determined with finality if they fall under its specific jurisdiction.
Massachusetts Juvenile Court
The Massachusetts Juvenile Court Department was created to hear cases involving children’s welfare and rights. It has general jurisdiction over delinquency, Children Requiring Assistance (CRA) Services, care and protection petitions, and youthful offender cases. It also handles other cases like adoption, parental rights termination proceedings, guardianship, and cases of adults promoting delinquency in minors. The Juvenile Court has 41 judges who sit in 11 divisions of the Juvenile Court in over 40 locations within the Commonwealth.
Massachusetts Probate and Family Court
The Massachusetts Probate and Family Court handle family and probate-based matters such as divorce, wills, and child support. It also exercises jurisdiction over other family issues like paternity, visitation, parental rights termination, abuse prevention, and custody. The court has general equity jurisdiction and serves all the 14 counties in the Commonwealth. Administrations, guardianships, conservatorship, and name change are some probate matters handled by the Probate and Family Court. It maintains archived records of wills, divorce and estate records, legal name change, and adoption cases. Interested residents can use the appropriate docket numbers to access probate records after paying a specified fee.
Massachusetts Boston Municipal Court
Officially known as the Boston Municipal Court (BMC) Department of the Trial Court, it serves the City of Boston and has 30 judges. The BMC judges sit in 8 court divisions and exercise jurisdiction over various civil and criminal matters in the City of Boston. Other cases under the court’s purview are restraining orders and mental health. The BMC has an Appellate Division where its justices preside in rotating panels of three members. Here, they resolve legal questions arising from the civil issues filed in the department’s eight divisions. They also hear appeals from some public agencies on firearms licenses, unemployment compensations, and victims of firearms compensations.
What are Appeals and Court Limits in Massachusetts?
An appeal is an application made to a higher court to reverse the decision or judgment of a lower court. The Commonwealth of Massachusett has two appellate courts, the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) and the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court hears most appeals from the seven Trial Court Departments and some state administrative agencies. The SJC, on the other hand, hears appeals on first-degree murder convictions and, sometimes, choose to by-pass the Appeals Court and conduct a direct appellate review on trial courts. Both Courts hold their sessions at John Adams Courthouse at Pemberton Square in the City of Boston. The District Court and the Boston Municipal Court (BMC) Departments also have Appellate Divisions that preside over initial appeals on civil cases before being heard by the Appeals Court.
An appeal is made when a notice of appeal is filed with the respective trial court, and copies are served to all concerned parties. These parties are usually the SJC or the Appeals Court and the opposing entities to the appealed case. In the Appeals Court, three-member panels, which are regularly rotated, preside over appeal cases. In contrast, a seven-member panel hears appeals in the Supreme Judicial Council.
To reverse a lower court’s judgment, the appellate courts consider two factors during the review. These are:
- The presence of a legal mistake in the course of the trial court proceedings
- The impact or effect of this mistake on the decision made (whether it changed the judgment or not)
In Massachusetts, a typical appeal of a trial court’s judgment is generally a six-step process as outlined below:
- Filing and serving a notice of appeal
- Preparation of the trial court’s records (including testimony transcripts, if any)
- Entering the appeal at the appellate court
- Briefing and organizing the record appendix
- Presenting oral argument or submitting to a panel for consideration
- Decision by the appellate court
After the presentation of oral arguments, the panel of judges pens down a decision (also known as opinion). On rare occasions when all judges may not agree, two out of the three can form a quorum where the prevailing decision wins. The SJC exercises its discretionary authority to hear a few appeals from the Appeals Court.
In the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, all notices of appeal to the Appeals Court must be filed within 30 days of entry of judgment with the clerk of the lower court. The Boston Municipal Court, District Court, and the Housing Court Departments are the only exceptions to this rule. In the BMC and the District Courts, notices of appeal must be filed with their respective Appellate Divisions within ten days after the lower court decisions. A ten-day filing period also holds true for appealing decisions of Housing Court cases. For further appeal to the SJC, an application must be filed within 21 days from the date of decision by the Appeals Court.
How Do I Find My Case Number in Massachusetts?
A case number, also known as a docket number, is a distinct string of digits that identifies a specific court case. Massachusetts trial courts assign these numbers to cases to provide helpful information and make them easier to track. A case number reveals useful information such as the year the case was filed, the court in which it was filed, the judicial officer to whom it was assigned, and the case type.
An interested member of the public can find a case number by accessing the public electronic trial court case docket information in person or online. To do so in person, requestors can visit any of the Massachusetts Courthouses or County Registry of Deeds sites to use their public terminals. These terminals are public access computers that run on eAccess, a public court case search application, and permit case number search by name or case type. Other case information displayed in the search result include event, party, and disposition details. However, actual case documents cannot be accessed online but can be inspected at the Register, Clerk, or Recorder’s offices.
Interested persons can also access case numbers online by using eAccess, the Massachusetts trial courts eServices portal. No login information is required to access electronic records maintained by the trial courts. Except for certain criminal cases, case numbers can be retrieved by searching with name, case type, and ticket/citation.
Does Massachusetts Hold Remote Trials?
Yes, the Massachusetts court system holds virtual hearings. It was introduced to curb the spread of the coronavirus and to facilitate individuals’ quick access to justice. The Massachusetts court system currently conducts its activities remotely by telephone, videoconferencing, and emails to limit in-person engagements and adhere to COVID-19 safety precautions.
Remote Hearings in Massachusetts
Remote trials have replaced actual courtroom meetings. They are conducted with telephones and videoconferencing. The Massachusetts court system uses Zoom software to organize its virtual hearings and other meetings. It provides a virtual hearings guide on its mass.gov website to help residents participate effectively in court proceedings. The court notifies individuals of virtual hearings via phone calls, U.S. mail, or emails. Individuals can also contact the court by calling the phone number or email address on the court notices sent to them. Alternatively, they can use the Courthouse Locator to find the specific court that served them notice.
Court Virtual Front Counters in Massachusetts
The Housing Court provides a virtual front counter manned by its staff to address court-related inquiries. They also help court users remotely and inform them of available court resources from the safety of their homes or offices. Employees of the Land Court Recorder’s Office, Middlesex Juvenile Court, and Probate & Family Court Registries also provide virtual assistance to court users.
Court Service Centers Remote Services in Massachusetts
Although Court Service Centers are shut to the public because of the coronavirus pandemic, they still cater to emergency cases remotely via Zoom meetings. Emergency cases for which Court Service Centers provide remote assistance include:
- Emergency guardianship of an incapacitated person.
- Emergency guardianship of a minor.
- 209A abuse prevention orders.
- 258E harassment prevention orders.
Persons affected by emergency issues may partake in the daily Zoom meeting to get assistance with court forms, legal information, and aid.
Trial Court Zoom Rooms
The Massachusetts trial courts created Zoom rooms (virtual rooms) to facilitate remote hearing participation for persons who lack basic communication devices and internet access. They do this by establishing computer stations in selected courthouses, to help users participate in video conferencing via Zoom. Courthouses in Brockton, Chelsea, Worcester, and Springfield presently have Zoom Rooms and were chosen because of peculiar community needs.