The Supreme Judicial Court, originally called the Superior Court of Judicature, was established in 1692 and is believed to be the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere. After the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780, the name of the Court was changed to the Supreme Judicial Court. The Court operates under the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780, the oldest, still functioning written constitution in the world.

The Supreme Judicial Court is the Commonwealth's highest appellate court. It consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices.

The seven Justices hear appeals on a broad range of criminal and civil cases from September through May. (To hear oral arguments before the Supreme Judicial Court, please visit the Windowpane entitled Listen to Oral Arguments Online.) The seven Justices usually sit as a group, but occasionally fewer than seven Justices may hear a case. Within several months of an oral argument, the Supreme Judicial Court will issue a written opinion. The opinion is the decision of the majority of the Justices. Other Justices may file dissenting opinions. Sometimes, a Justice agrees with the Court's decision but not its reasoning; in such an instance, a Justice may file a concurring opinion.

Single Justice Sessions are held each week throughout the year for certain motions pertaining to cases on trial or on appeal, bail reviews, bar discipline proceedings, petitions for admission to the bar, and a variety of other proceedings, including emergency matters. The Associate Justices rotate sitting as Single Justice each month. The full court renders approximately 200 written decisions each year; the single justices decide approximately 600 cases annually.

In addition to appellate functions, the Supreme Judicial Court is responsible for the general superintendence of the judiciary and of the bar, makes or approves rules for the operations of all the courts, and in certain instances, provides advisory opinions, upon request, to the Governor and Legislature on various legal issues.

The Supreme Judicial Court also oversees several affiliated agencies of the judicial branch, including the Board of Bar Overseers, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Clients' Security Board, the Massachusetts Mental Health Legal Advisors Committee, and Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services.

A Brief History
The Supreme Judicial Court was established in 1692.

King William III (William of Orange) and Queen Mary II assumed the throne of England in 1688, an event known to us as the "Glorious Revolution." At this time, the colony of Massachusetts Bay had been without a charter for five years, as the previous charter had been revoked by King James II due to the colony's violating trade restrictions imposed by England and exhibiting religious intolerance toward members of the Anglican Church. In 1691, at the urging of Reverend Increase Mather, Rector of Harvard and Pastor of Second Church in Boston, King William and Queen Mary issued a charter which established the Province of Massachusetts. Known as the Second Charter, it authorized the provincial government to "erect and constitute judicatories and courts of record . . ." During the spring of 1692, as witchcraft hysteria gripped Salem and its environs, Colonial Governor William Phips appointed a special Court of Oyer and Terminer to hear and determine charges of witchcraft within the counties of Essex, Middlesex, and Suffolk. This Court permitted "spectral evidence," the testimony of an allegedly afflicted person that the accused had appeared in the form of an apparition. Between June 2 and October 29, 1692, the Court of Oyer and Terminer sentenced twenty people to death. This Court was dissolved at the end of October, 1692, but several dozen people remained in prison, awaiting trial on the charge of witchcraft.

On November 25, 1692, the General Court passed legislation creating the Superior Court of Judicature and various lower courts. The five Justices of the newly-established Superior Court of Judicature sat for the first time on January 3, 1693, in Salem. The new Court, which ignored spectral evidence as unreliable, heard the cases of twenty-six persons accused of witchcraft; twenty-three were found not guilty and the remaining three were later pardoned by the Governor.

The Superior Court of Judicature was a trial and appellate court; the court had original jurisdiction over felony prosecutions, and appeals consisted of trials de novo (a new trial with evidence).

The Superior Court of Judicature played an important role in this nation's struggle for independence. In 1761, the Court decided the "Writs of Assistance" case, one of the most important cases heard in colonial America. In that case, Boston attorney James Otis argued that the writs - general warrants that allowed officials to search for smuggled material within any suspected premises - violated man's inherent and inalienable rights. Though the court upheld the writs, Otis's argument galvanized the colonists. John Adams, who witnessed Otis's argument, wrote, "then and there, the child Independence was born."

In 1775, after the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Massachusetts Revolutionary Council took over the colony's government and removed the justices of the Superior Court of Judicature. The Council replaced four of the five justices who had been appointed by the Royal Governor with revolutionary sympathizers, including John Adams, who was appointed as Chief Justice. 2  In 1780, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts went into effect and the Superior Court of Judicature was given a new name: the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Constitution proclaims the centrality of judicial independence in Article 29:

It is essential to the preservation of the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property, and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice. It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial, and independent as the lot of humanity will admit. It is, therefore, not only the best policy, but for the security of the rights of the people, and of every citizen, that the judges of the supreme judicial court should hold their offices as long as they behave themselves well, and that they should have honorable salaries ascertained and established by standing laws.

In February, 1781, Governor Hancock formally appointed the five justices serving on the Superior Court of Judicature as justices of the Supreme Judicial Court.3  A year later the legislature specified that the court consist of a Chief Justice and four other justices, and that "each... shall be an Inhabitant of this Commonwealth, of Sobriety of Manners, and learned in the Law." In 1800, the legislature increased the number of justices from five to seven. Between 1804 and 1873, the legislature changed the number of justices seven times, though the number of justices never went below four or above seven. Since 1873, the number of justices has remained at seven.  

Over time, as the appellate caseload grew, the Supreme Judicial Court gradually relinquished its trial court jurisdiction. The legislature removed the court's original (trial) jurisdiction over tort cases in 1880 and over capital (murder) cases in 1891. The Appeals Court was created in 1972 to relieve the appellate burden on the Supreme Judicial Court.

The Justices
The seven Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court are:

  • Chief Justice Roderick L. Ireland
    Roderick L. Ireland is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court.  A native of Springfield, Massachusetts, he received his Bachelor of Arts from Lincoln University; Juris Doctor from Columbia Law School; Master of Laws from Harvard Law School; and Doctor of Philosophy in Law, Policy, and Society from Northeastern University.  Chief Justice Ireland began his legal career in 1969 as a Neighborhood Legal Services attorney, then worked as a public defender with the Roxbury Defenders Committee, as chief attorney, deputy director, and executive director.  He was Assistant Secretary and Chief Legal Counsel for the Massachusetts Executive Office of Administration and Finance, and Chair of the Massachusetts Board of Appeals on Motor Vehicle Liability Policies and Bonds.

Chief Justice Ireland has been a jurist for more than thirty-five years, serving as a judge of the Juvenile Court from 1977 to 1990, after which he was appointed an Associate Justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court (1990-1997).  He was first appointed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997, by Governor William F. Weld.  He became the Senior Associate Justice in 2008.  In 2010, he was appointed as the thirty-sixth Chief Justice by Governor Deval Patrick and was sworn in on December 20.  Chief Justice Ireland has been an adjunct faculty member at Northeastern University since 1978, and on the faculty of the Appellate Judges Seminar at New York University Law School since 2001.  He is the author of the Juvenile Law volume of Thomson/West Publishing's Massachusetts Practice Series, (the first edition was published in 1993 and the second edition in 2006), as well as several law review articles.  When he was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 1997, he was the first African-American Justice in its then 305 year history and now serves as its first African-American Chief Justice.

Chief Justice Ireland has received a number of honors and awards, including the Great Friend of Justice Award from the Massachusetts Bar Foundation (2008); the Judicial Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Bar Association and Lawyers Weekly Newspaper (2001); the Judicial Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys (1999); the St. Thomas More Award from Boston College Law School (1998); the Judicial Excellence Award from the Massachusetts Judges Conference (1996); the Distinguished Judicial Service Award from the Boston Bar Association (1990); the Boston Covenant Peace Prize (1982); and a number of honorary Doctor of Law degrees.  Active in his community, Chief Justice Ireland is a frequent speaker in schools, churches and community forums.

  • Associate Justice Francis X. Spina
    Honorable Francis X. Spina, Associate Justice, was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts in 1946. He received his B.A. from Amherst College and J.D. from Boston College Law School. From 1972 to 1974, Justice Spina served with Western Massachusetts Legal Services. From 1975 to 1977, he served as an Assistant City Solicitor for the City of Pittsfield Law Department. From 1979 to 1983, he served as Second Assistant District Attorney in the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office. Justice Spina was a partner with the Pittsfield law firms of Reder, Whalen, and Spina from 1983 to 1987, and Katz, Lapointe, and Spina from 1987 to 1993. Justice Spina served on the Superior Court from 1993 to 1997, and the Massachusetts Appeals Court from 1997 to 1999. He was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court on October 14, 1999, by Governor Paul Cellucci.
  • Associate Justice Robert J. Cordy
    Honorable Robert J. Cordy, Associate Justice, was born in Manchester, Connecticut in 1949. He received his A.B. degree from Dartmouth College in 1971, and his J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1974. Justice Cordy began his legal career in 1974 as a defense attorney for the Massachusetts Defenders Committee. From 1978 to 1979, he worked for the Department of Revenue, where he was a Special Assistant Attorney General. From 1979 to 1982, he was Associate General Counsel in Charge of Enforcement at the State Ethics Commission. From 1982 to 1987, Justice Cordy served as a federal prosecutor under U.S. Attorney William F. Weld. While in that office, he became Chief of the Public Corruption Unit. He was a partner in the law firm of Burns & Levinson in Boston from 1987 to 1991. From 1991 to 1993, he served as Chief Legal Counsel to then Governor Weld. In 1993, Justice Cordy joined the Boston office of the international law firm McDermott, Will & Emery, where he became Managing Partner. In addition to his other positions, he was a lecturer at Harvard Law School from 1987 to 1996. He was appointed an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court in February 2001 by Governor Paul Cellucci.
  • Associate Justice Margot Botsford
    Honorable Margot Botsford, Associate Justice, was born in New York , New York on March 16, 1947. She received her B.A. from Barnard College , graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1969.  She earned her J.D. from Northeastern University School of Law in 1973 and an M.P.A. degree from Harvard University 's John F. Kennedy School of Government in 2007. Upon graduating from law school, she served as Law Clerk to Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Justice Francis J. Quirico. During the next sixteen years she worked primarily in the public sector. She served four years as an Assistant Attorney General under Attorney General Frank Bellotti and later as an Assistant District Attorney in the office of Middlesex County District Attorney Scott Harshbarger for six years. She also practiced law in the private sector for one year as an associate at the firm of Hill & Barlow, and three years as a partner in the Boston law firm of Rosenfeld, Botsford & Krokidas. In 1989, she was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court, where she served for eighteen years. Governor Deval Patrick appointed her to the Supreme Judicial Court in September, 2007. Justice Botsford has taught at Northeastern University School of Law, Boston University Law School , the National Judicial College , and the Flaschner Judicial Institute. Among her awards and honors are Judicial Excellence Awards from the Massachusetts Judicial Conference and the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Attorneys, and the Haskell Cohn Distinguished Judicial Service Award from the Boston Bar Association.
  • Associate Justice Ralph D. Gants
    Honorable Ralph D. Gants, Associate Justice, was born in New Rochelle , New York in 1954. He received his B.A. from Harvard College in 1976, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. The following year he completed a Diploma in Criminology at Cambridge University in England . In 1980, he earned a J.D. degree, magna cum laude, from Harvard Law School where he was note editor of the Harvard Law Review. After graduation from law school, Justice Gants served as Law Clerk to United States District Court Judge Eugene H. Nickerson. From 1981 to 1983, he was Special Assistant to Judge William H. Webster, Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In 1983, he was appointed Assistant U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, serving as Chief of the Public Corruption Division from 1988 to 1991. In 1991, he joined the Boston law firm of Palmer & Dodge LLP, becoming a partner in 1994. He was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Superior Court in 1997 by Governor William Weld. In 2008, he served as Administrative Justice of the Superior Court's Business Litigation Session. Governor Deval Patrick appointed Justice Gants to the Supreme Judicial Court in January 2009. He has taught at Harvard Law School , New England School of Law, and Northeastern University School of Law. Justice Gants is married with two children.
  • Associate Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly
    Fernande R.V. Duffly, Associate Justice, was born in Indonesia on December 10, 1949. She received her B.A. from the University of Connecticut in 1973, and her J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1978. Justice Duffly began her legal career in 1978 as an attorney in the litigation department of the Boston law firm then known as Warner and Stackpole.

Justice Duffly served on the Probate and Family Court from 1992-2000; the Massachusetts Appeals Court from 2000 to 2011; and was appointed as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court on February 1, 2011, by Governor Deval Patrick.

As an attorney, she provided pro bono legal services to indigent clients through the Volunteer Lawyers Project. She has served on the Boston Bar Association's committees on pro se litigation and attorney volunteerism; the Probate and Family Court's committee on pro se access to the courts; the ABA subcommittee on representation of children; and the Supreme Judicial Court's Standing Committee on substance abuse.

She is a member and past President of the National Association of Women Judges.  A member of the American Bar Association, she is NAWJ's delegate to the House of Delegates and has been appointed as a Commissioner serving on the ABA 's Commission on the Status of Women in the Profession.

Justice Duffly has written articles and taught seminars on various topics, including appellate decision-making, family law, trusts, parental rights.  A frequent speaker, she often speaks on topics related to ensuring access to justice and increasing diversity in the courts.  Justice Duffly has received the Distinguished Service Award from the Probate Judge's Association; the Distinguished Jurist Award from the Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers; and the Trailblazer Award from the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association. She has also been recognized as a Diversity Hero by Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and was named a 2008 Woman of Justice, an award co-sponsored by Lawyers Weekly, the Women's Bar Association and Massachusetts Association of Women Lawyers.  In 2011, the ABA Business Law Section through its subcommittee Women Business Advocates presented Justice Duffly with its annual award honoring a Women Judge who has contributed to the advancement of Women in the legal profession.

  • Associate Justice Barbara A. Lenk
    Justice Barbara A. Lenk was born in Queens , New York .  She received a B.A., magna cum laude, from Fordham University in 1972;  a Ph.D. in political philosophy from Yale University in 1978;  and a J.D. from Harvard Law School in 1979.  She began her legal career in 1979 at the Boston law firm of Brown, Rudnick, Freed & Gesmer (now known as Brown Rudnick LLP), and became a partner there.  Her practice focused on civil litigation, with a specialty in First Amendment matters.  Justice Lenk was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court by Governor Deval Patrick in 2011.  She had previously served on the Superior Court, to which she was appointed by Governor William Weld in 1993, and on the Massachusetts Appeals Court, to which she was appointed by Governor Weld in 1995.  Justice Lenk has been involved in a number of bar-related and other civic activities.  She has served on the Board of Directors of the Volunteer Lawyers Project of the Boston Bar Association;  as Chair of the Board of Editors of the Boston Bar Journal;  and as a member of the Judicial Administration Council of the Massachusetts Bar Association.  She currently serves as a Trustee of Western New England University and as a member of the Boston Inn of Court.

The Court's Departments
The Supreme Judicial Court has a number of departments, including:  

  • Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth
    The duties of this office include responsibility for the court's appellate caseload; requests for advisory opinions from the Governor, the Governor's Council, or either branch of the Legislature; questions of law certified by federal courts or certain other courts; original entries involving the discipline of clerks of courts and judges; attending sessions of the full court; maintaining the docket of each related item; processing all pertinent filings; and serving as the court's liaison to the parties or their counsel.
  • Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County
    This office is responsible for the single justice caseload of the Supreme Judicial Court and serves as a liaison between the parties and the single justice. The clerk maintains the docket for the single justice matters, schedules sessions of single justice and bar discipline hearings before the single justice, maintains the bar docket for matters filed by the Board of Bar Overseers pertaining to attorney discipline, receives and maintains applications for admission to the bar of the Commonwealth; administers oaths for newly qualified applicants to the bar of the Commonwealth and other jurisdictions; issues certificates of good standing; processes applications of student practitioners; processes applications from attorneys in foreign jurisdictions and processes applications to become Foreign Legal Consultants.
  • Reporter of Decisions
    The Reporter of Decisions is appointed by the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court. The Reporter and his staff prepare all court opinions for publication with suitable head notes, tables of cases, and indexes.
  • Law Clerks
    Law Clerks work for an assigned Justice. They conduct legal research on cases scheduled for argument. Following argument, when a case has been assigned to their justice, the law clerks will conduct additional legal research and assist with the initial drafting process.
  • Public Information Office
    The Public Information Office is the central communications office for media and public inquiries and requests concerning the Massachusetts judicial branch. The Office publishes a quarterly newsletter, The Court Compass, and the annual reports for the judicial branch. In its community relations role, the Public Information Office conducts a variety of outreach programs throughout the year, such as the Judicial Youth Corps. In its media relations role, the Public Information Office offers support to judges and court personnel in dealing with the media.
  • The Division of Archives and Records Preservation
    The Division of Archives and Records Preservation locates, identifies, preserves, and prepares for use all historically important court records in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Massachusetts court records form an unbroken sequence from 1630 to the present and offer a unique opportunity to trace the development of American law and legal institutions from the beginnings of English settlement in the New World.

The original mandate - to develop a judicial archive of pre-1860 and historically significant court records - has largely been realized in the creation of the Judicial Archives located at the State Archives at Columbia Point. The Division's responsibilities have expanded to include working with scholars, researchers and requests for information, assisting court clerks with the implementation of the Supreme Judicial Court rule relative to records retention, advising the courts on the management and preservation of permanent records, and the conservation treatment of damaged material, including both documents and bound volumes.

The conservation section is responsible for the conservation and preservation of all historically significant Massachusetts court records. Full paper conservation treatment, including dry cleaning, aqueous washing, neutralization (deacidification), repair, lining or mylar encapsulation is undertaken.  In addition, the conservation section is equipped to handle book repair and rebinding and the preparation of both custom made and standardized boxes and enclosures.  The conservation section is committed to preventative conservation procedures for both older and modern court records, urging the adoption and implementation of acid-free storage enclosures, proper methods of housing, storage and handling, environmental control and disaster contingency planning.

In addition, the division is responsible for the implementation and maintenance of a state-wide computerized records management program. This program currently tracks nearly 120,000 boxes of records in five facilities. The system can search by court, records series, keyword, date or other tag and the location of specific requested files can be retrieved. It is also queried regularly to identify boxes of records which have passed their assigned destruction date so that they can be removed from off-site storage and destroyed.