The Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, also known as the single justice session, is that part of the court's business in which an associate justice acts as a trial judge-as was the function of the first justices-or as an administrator of the court's supervisory power under G. L. c. 211, §3. The county court, as it is often called, has original, concurrent, interlocutory and appellate jurisdiction conferred by the Massachusetts Constitution, statutes, rules of court and case law. Practice before the single justice is governed by the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure, SJC Rule 2:01 et seq. and pertinent Standing Orders. In reality, however, the practice has diverted from strict compliance with the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure and is presently governed by a hybrid of formal rules and historic customs and practices.

In addition to the single justice caseload, the associate justice also sits on bar docket matters, which include attorney discipline and administrative matters affecting members of the bar. The single justice also presides over formal bar admission ceremonies twice a year.

Single Justice Practice and Procedure 

This section offers basic, useful information concerning single justice practice and procedure. There is a discussion of the responsibilities of the clerk and assistant clerks bearing on single justice practice and the steps necessary to open a single justice case.

The Role of the Clerk and Assistant Clerks

The clerk and assistant clerks are available during all business hours to assist counsel with questions covering every facet of single justice practice and procedure. The clerk and assistant clerks perform the following functions:

  • serve as a liaison between the single justice and the parties;
  • receive and review petitions, complaints and motions in all single justice matters, including bar docket cases;
  • assist counsel in determining the proper jurisdictional basis for the issue presented;
  • confer with counsel in the clerk's office or by telephone about single justice practice and procedure, bar docket practice and procedure, appellate procedure and jurisdiction;
  • conduct court sessions;
  • administer oaths to new attorneys; and
  • serve as the in-state agent for service of process on licensed foreign legal consultants pursuant to SJC Rule 3:05 §7, 7.1.

Filing the Single Justice Case

Single justice practice is similar to practice before the superior court. As set forth in Mass.R.Civ.P. 1, practice before the single justice is governed by the Massachusetts Rules of Civil Procedure and not the more formal Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure. Cases are opened upon the filing of one original petition, application or complaint, together with the requisite filing fee of $315.00 payable to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In the event of indigence, a motion to waive the filing fee and a supporting affidavit of indigence must be filed in lieu of the filing fee. Under no circumstance may a single justice case be opened without either a filing fee or a motion to waive the fee. If the petitioner has been appointed counsel in the lower court, a copy of the Notice of Appearance of Counsel form issued by the lower court should be filed as well.

A petition or application should set forth with specificity the lower court procedural history including the name of the court and justice, the docket number, trial date (if applicable), a brief discussion of the order subject to review, the grounds upon which review is necessary and the relief sought. The petition should be accompanied by all lower court papers including the findings and rulings if any, together with a memorandum of law in support of the requested relief.

In the event of a request for emergency relief, as often is the case in review of bail determinations, rulings in care and protection cases and summary process (eviction) orders, the title of the petition should reflect the emergency nature of the petition. A party seeking emergency relief should inform the clerk or an assistant clerk at the earliest possible stage that an emergency petition will be filed. A ruling cannot be obtained from a single justice until papers are actually filed with the court. In limited instances where time is of the essence, a facsimile of the emergency petition will be accepted by the clerk's office so long as the original petition is filed forthwith.

Service 

All pleadings filed in the single justice session may be served by first class mail, hand delivery or, in the case of emergencies, via facsimile. Because many matters before the single justice require speedy disposition, the formal application of the rules regarding service of process is relaxed. The petitioner or plaintiff is not required to serve a summons with the original pleading. However, a certificate of service is required with every pleading. It must set forth the method and date of service and the name and address of each party served. If counsel is served on behalf of a party, the name of the attorney and the particular party represented by the attorney must be included.

If the petitioner or plaintiff chooses to serve an opposing party with a summons, despite the relaxed service requirement, summonses are available through the clerk's office for a nominal fee of $.50.

Responsive Pleading

With the exception of applications for interlocutory appeal, which require a response within seven days, there is no strict adherence to Mass.R.Civ.P. 12 (a)(1) requiring a party to serve a responsive pleading within 20 days of service. Instead, the clerk and assistant clerks coordinate a date for filing with opposing counsel based upon any time constraints imposed by lower court proceedings or the agreed upon date for hearing before the single justice. If the matter is scheduled for hearing before the single justice, any responsive pleading should be filed at least four to five calendar days prior to the hearing date.

Hearings

The single justice has the discretion to decide any matter on the papers without a hearing.  Parties may request a hearing, and the single justice will determine whether a hearing would help in deciding the matter. Supreme Judicial Court Rule 2:18 states that sittings of the single justice "will be on Wednesday unless the single justice otherwise directs."  The court calendar lists Wednesdays as being available for single justice hearings, however, the practice has become that a single justice will schedule hearings at any time which is mutually convenient to the parties and the justice, or as dictated by the needs of a particular case.  Hearings are held in the Oliver Wendell Holmes Courtroom (Courtroom 2, John Adams Courthouse).  Hearings are digitally recorded. 

Telephone conference hearings are available when time is of the essence, or it is impractical for counsel to travel to Boston, e.g., counsel are on trial or are from Barnstable, Dukes, Berkshire Counties or other distant venues.  Telephone conferences may be conducted in the justice’s lobby or wherever the single justice deems appropriate, and then docketed in the single justice file.

Certain single justice cases do not require a hearing. For example, hearings are not held on corporate dissolutions and motions for payment in receivership cases. Unless ordered by a single justice, applications for leave to appeal pursuant to Mass.R.Crim.P. 15(a)(2) are no longer marked for hearing. (See SJC Standing Order entitled, "Applications to a Single Justice Pursuant to Mass.R.Crim.P. 15(a)(2)," effective February 1, 1997.) Finally, the single justice has the discretion to decide any matter on the papers, although the practice is to allow a hearing under most circumstances.

Disposition

The single justice is vested with the power to dispose of matters before the county court in a variety of ways. The single justice may:

  • decline to act;
  • determine the issue presented;
  • allow the relief requested;
  • allow the relief sought in part and deny it in part;
  • deny the relief sought;
  • transfer the case to a lower court for determination pursuant to G. L. c. 211, §4A; or,
  •  remand the case to the trial court to establish a record or advise the trial court to proceed in a certain manner.

The single justice may also reserve ruling and report the matter to the full court. Matters most often reserved and reported are public utility and board of registration appeals. Novel questions of law unresolved by existing case law may also be grounds for the single justice to reserve and report the matter. See generally, Veksler v. Board of Registration in Dentistry, 429 Mass. 711 (1999)(board of registration appeal); Krochta v. Commonwealth, 429 Mass. 530 (1999)(defensive collateral estoppel and double jeopardy issues); Cablevision Systems Corp. v. Department of Telecommunications and Energy, 428 Mass. 436 (1999)(public utility appeal).

Appeal 

A party aggrieved by a final judgment of the single justice may appeal therefrom to the full court of the Supreme Judicial Court. See G. L. c. 231, §114. As a general rule, the Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure govern all such appeals. The full court will not reverse an order of the single justice in the absence of an abuse of discretion or clear error of law. Milton v. City of Boston, 427 Mass. 1016, 1016-1017 (1998).

The exception occurs where the single justice denies G.L. c. 211, §3 relief from an interlocutory ruling of the lower court. In this instance, SJC Rule 2:21 governs the appellate procedure. Under SJC Rule 2:21, the petitioner must file a notice of appeal with the clerk within seven days. The record on appeal consists of the papers before the single justice and a memorandum, not to exceed 10 pages, that the appellant must file with the clerk for the full court explaining why review of the adverse ruling cannot otherwise be obtained after the entry of final judgment.