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 Supreme Judicial Court consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices appointed by the Governor with the consent of the Governor's Council. The Justices hold office until the mandatory retirement age of seventy, as do all Massachusetts judges. Biographical information about the current Chief Justice and Justices are available on the Supreme Judicial Court Justices web page.
The Court's Departments
The Supreme Judicial Court has a number of departments, including:
- Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth
The Office of the Clerk for the Commonwealth maintains the docket and calendar for the Supreme Judicial Court full bench, attends sessions of the full court, processes pertinent filings, and serves as the court's liaison to parties or their counsel. The main caseload of the Clerk for the Commonwealth consists of first degree murder appeals, and matters taken from the Appeals Court on its own motion or on further or direct appellate review. In addition, the office receives for decision by the full court: 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; appeals from decisions of the single justice; reservations and reports of the single justice; and interlocutory appeals and gatekeeper matters allowed by the single justice. Court sessions are scheduled during the first full week of the month, from September to May.
- Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County
The Clerk's Office for The County of Suffolk is primarily responsible for the single justice caseload of the Supreme Judicial Court, matters filed by the Board of Bar Overseers pertaining to attorney discipline and administrative matters affecting members of the bar, and matters relating to admission to the Bar and the practice of law in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The office has three departments: Single Justice, Bar Docket and Attorney Services.
- Reporter of Decisions
The Reporter of Decisions makes true reports of decisions upon all questions of law argued by counsel before the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court, and prepares them for publication, in print and electronic form, with suitable headnotes, 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 of the Supreme Judicial Court is the central communications office for media and public inquiries and requests concerning the Massachusetts judicial branch. The overall mission of the Public Information Office is to educate and assist the media and the public to understand the role and function of the Massachusetts courts.
- 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.