About the Court
The Massachusetts Appeals Court is a court of general appellate jurisdiction. Most appeals from the several Departments of the Trial Court are entered initially in the Appeals Court; some are then transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court, but a large majority will be decided by the Appeals Court. The Appeals Court also has jurisdiction over appeals from final decisions of three State agencies: the Appellate Tax Board, the Department of Industrial Accidents and the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board. A few types of appeals do not go the Appeals Court. For example, an appeal from a conviction of first degree murder goes directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. In the District Court Department, appeals in certain civil cases are made first to the Appellate Division of the District Court.
The Appeals Court has twenty-five statutory justices. The Court also has the services on recall of several retired appellate justices. Like most intermediate appellate courts, the Appeals Court almost always sits in panels of three. The composition of the three-judge panels changes regularly, so that each justice has the opportunity to sit with every other justice. The Court holds sessions in Boston during every month from September through June; it also holds sessions throughout the year in locations outside of Boston.
In addition to its appellate, or "panel," jurisdiction, the Appeals Court runs a continuous single justice session, with a separate docket. The single justice may review interlocutory orders and orders for injunctive relief issued by certain Trial Court Departments, as well as requests for review of summary process appeal bonds, certain attorney's fee awards, motions for stays of civil proceedings or criminal sentences pending appeal, and motions to review impoundment orders. Each associate justice sits as single justice for a month at a time.
A Brief History of the Appeals Court
The Massachusetts Appeals Court was created by statute in 1972. By that time, the appellate caseload of the Supreme Judicial Court had grown to an unmanageable level, and it was widely recognized that a second State appellate court was needed.
The Legislature enacted chapter 740 of the Acts of 1972, which established the court by creating chapter 211A of the General Laws. The enabling legislation provided for six justices, who took office on October 6, 1972. Offices were made available on the fifteenth floor of the Suffolk County Courthouse, in an area that had previously served as the jury pool, and a courtroom on the tenth floor was assigned to the new court. The Appeals Court held its first sittings in November and issued its first decisions in December of that year.
In 1974 the Massachusetts courts adopted new rules of civil and appellate procedure. That modernization led to a sharp increase in the caseload of the Appeals Court. By 1978 it was clear that additional judicial resources were needed. The Legislature enlarged the size of the court from six justices to ten, and also gave the court authority to recall retired appellate justices for service. The appellate caseload continued to grow during the 1980s, which led to a further expansion of the court in 1990, from ten statutory justices to fourteen.
The abolition of the trial de novo system for criminal cases in the District and Boston Municipal Courts spawned a further increase in appellate caseloads during the 1990s. By 1998 the Appeals Court's gross annual caseload approached 2400 appeals, almost five times as many as had been entered in 1973, the first full year of its existence; civil business had tripled, while criminal business had multiplied almost ninefold. Even after several changes in operating procedures, it had become impossible for the fourteen-judge court to keep pace with its caseload; delays in scheduling cases and issuing decisions grew to unacceptable levels. Again, the Legislature responded. In 2000, it created eleven new judgeships for the Appeals Court which became effective the following year. The third expansion of the Appeals Court brought its complement of judges up to twenty-five. By 2003 the Appeals Court had reduced its backlog substantially. The interval between completion of briefing and oral argument in civil cases, which had been as long as twenty-two months in 2000, was now five to seven months; in criminal cases, what had been an interval of fourteen months was reduced to approximately four months.
In 2003 the Appeals Court relocated its offices to temporary quarters at Three Center Plaza and held sessions at the Brooke Courthouse. In January 2005 the court moved into its present location at the newly renovated John Adams Courthouse (formerly known as the Old Suffolk County Courthouse, adjacent to the Court's original home) in Boston's Pemberton Square.