The Massachusetts Appeals Court is a court of general appellate jurisdiction. That means that the justices review decisions that the trial judges from the several Departments of the Trial Court have already made in many different kinds of cases. The Appeals Court also has jurisdiction over appeals from final decisions of three State agencies: the Appellate Tax Board, the Industrial Accident Board and the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board.
When an appeal is filed, the Appeals Court justices read the appealing parties’ written arguments, referred to as “briefs," and in many cases also hear their arguments in a court session called an “oral argument.” They do not retry the cases or make factual determinations at oral argument, and only review decisions for errors of law and whether the errors made affected the outcome of the case decided below.
Although most appeals are entered initially in the Appeals Court, some are transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court before they are heard. But a large majority will be decided by the Appeals Court.
A few types of appeals do not go to 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 of the Trial Court, appeals in certain civil cases are made first to the Appellate Division of the District Court.
The Appeals Court Sits in Panels of Three Justices
The Appeals Court has twenty-five statutory justices, including the chief justice. 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. Learn more about the Appeals Court justices and former justices by clicking here.
Where does the Appeals Court sit and are oral arguments open to the public?
The Appeals Court holds several sessions of oral arguments at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston during every month from September through June. It also holds sessions in locations outside of Boston, often in a regional courthouse or at law schools around the state. All sessions are open to the public. To learn more about educational opportunities to observe oral arguments, click here. To view the court's oral argument calendar, click here.
Following oral argument, the three justices on a panel will write a decision, known as an opinion, for the court. In the small number of instances in which the justices disagree, there may be more than one opinion; then, two justices would constitute the majority, and the other justice, the minority.
Following a decision by the Appeals Court, some cases are appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Judicial Court agrees to hear a small number of such cases. The vast majority of appeals are decided only by one of the two courts.
Single Justice Hearings
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 (postponement) 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. Click here to view current single justice sittings calendar.