The Reporter of Decisions is appointed by the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC). The authority and duties of the position are governed by G. L. c. 221, §§63-68.
This statute requires the Reporter to:
- Make true reports of decisions upon all questions of law argued by counsel and prepare them for publication with suitable headnotes, tables of cases, and indexes.
- Furnish them to the publisher and superintend their correction, proof reading, and publication.
- Contract for the printing and binding of reports.
- Attend sittings of court unless excused (the Reporter presently attends primarily on ceremonial occasions).
In 1836, the Legislature established the position of Deputy Reporter to attend the court's sitting and to take notes in the Reporter's absence. The duties of the present Deputy Reporter are to assist the Reporter.
Reporter of Decisions
Brian H. Redmond
Sara V. Rocha
Daniel M. Spurling
Matthew S. Makara
Chief Legal Publishing Specialist
Legal Publishing Specialist
K. Isaac Wilhelm
Publication of the Reports
In 1803, a statute (St. 1803, c. 133, §1) provided for the office of Reporter of Decisions. The first Reporter was not appointed until 1804. The preface to the first edition of volume 1 of the Massachusetts Reports describes duties of the Reporter that required travel with the Justices from county to county, the court "ordinarily having but one week for holding a term in each county." Much time was spent seeking materials that would support an accurate reporting of the cases being heard.
Today, slip opinions and advance sheets are published in print and electronic formats. While many of the editorial and writing skills required to report the court's opinions are as important today as they were in 1804, the process of disseminating the court's opinions has changed dramatically.
The Reporter's office provides editorial support for the Justices of the SJC and the Appeals Court, editing approximately 450 opinions each year in close collaboration with the Justices, their law clerks, and judicial secretaries. In the initial editing stage, the Reporter, the Deputy Reporter, or one of the Assistant Reporters checks all facts stated in a draft opinion against the record appendix or transcripts, checks citations and further appellate history, conforms the opinion to the conventions of the official style manual, and checks grammar and syntax.
After the Justices approve a final draft opinion, a legal publishing specialist verifies the panel hearing the case, checks the county of origin and argument date, and prepares the document for a final round of editing prior to release.
In the final editing stage, the Reporter, Deputy Reporter, or Assistant Reporter reads each opinion again, focusing on style and substance. Any suggestions of a substantive nature are brought to the attention of the authoring Justice. The Reporter, Deputy Reporter, or Assistant Reporter also assigns "catchwords" to identify the various issues discussed, drafts a procedural history that outlines how the case has come to the appellate court, and verifies counsel on appeal who argued before the court.
An important responsibility of the Reporter is to prepare headnotes, which are synopses of the issues decided in a case. Headnotes do not appear in the slip opinions, but do appear in the advance sheets and bound volumes. The fifteenth Reporter of Decisions, Grant M. Palmer, Jr., expressed these thoughts about headnoting opinions in the Massachusetts Reports (Memorandum to SJC Staff, 1971):
"Brevity and conciseness are a prime consideration. When the relevant facts are many and perhaps complicated, e.g., in a negligence case, it is often possible to summarize the facts fairly briefly in such a way as to give the reader a clear idea of the situation involved. However, it must be recognized that there are certain kinds of cases where a somewhat lengthy headnote cannot be avoided if the point is to be made clear, e.g., where the decision turns on the meaning of particular language of a provision of a will or contract -- often long. With rare exceptions, each headnote is one sentence; this is conducive to brevity.
"Ordinarily, each headnote will cover only one point of law, and will state only the facts relevant to that point. This kind of headnote is believed to be the most helpful to the reader, and has been used for many years. An exception to this rule may be made where the facts, or the terms of a statute, or other factors are relevant to two or more points of law; in such a situation it may be better, in order to avoid repetition, to write one headnote, inserting a bracket for the opinion page number or numbers after each point.
"Certain well settled rules of law which are often stated in passing in opinions are ordinarily not headnoted as such, although of course they may be involved in the headnotes which are written.
"'Signboard' headnotes (so called by former Reporter E.V. Grabill) . . . are used in instances where there is a fairly extended discussion or statement of a point of law or review of authorities pertaining thereto. The headnote to cover this material would be a short one reading thus: 'Discussion [or Statement] of [or Review of authorities pertaining to]" the legal point in question. Usually, of course, the point would also be involved in another headnote dealing with the pertinent facts and procedure.
"In a majority of instances, probably, a dissent or concurrence is indicated at the end of a headnote merely by the name or names of the judge or judges followed by the word 'dissenting' or 'concurring,' both in regular and advisory opinions. As will appear from these references, the dissent or concurrence is frequently to only one or some of the points in the case; in such instances the headnote writer must be careful to fit the dissent or concurrence to the right headnote or headnotes -- not always an easy decision. Not infrequently, more than an indication that a judge or judges dissented or concurred is advisable for the sake of clarity.
"[M]uch must be left to the discretion of the headnote writer, bearing in mind that the main purpose of headnotes is not to relieve the reader of the necessity of reading the opinion, but to get across to [the reader] quickly and clearly the salient points of the opinion so that [the reader] can then examine it for those in which [the reader] is interested."
Dissemination and archiving of opinions
Slip opinions are released to the public shortly after 10 A.M. each day.
The Reporter's office administers a contract for the publication of the advance sheet and permanent bound volumes of the official reports of the SJC (from 1804 to present) and the Appeals Court (from its establishment in 1972 to present). The advance sheet service provided by the Reporter's office is the most timely in the United States. The publishing week begins on Thursday and ends on Wednesday. All cases released through Wednesday of a given week are issued to the subscribers in advance sheet form on the following Friday.
All advance sheet pages are carefully proofread again before a bound volume is produced. Each bound volume incorporates all changes since the release of the advance sheet pages. The publisher mails bound volumes to the subscribers and maintains an inventory of past bound volumes. The Reporter's office publishes four to five volumes each year.
The Reporter's office continues its efforts to standardize its editing conventions and office practices. The editorial Style Manual, which has been in use for several years, is continually evaluated and updated and may be downloaded here .
The manual includes general rules of SJC writing style, tables of abbreviations, guidelines for case citation, and rules of capitalization and punctuation followed in preparing the official reports. There are sections explaining the method of forming case captions and party designations. Examples of common statements of dispository language, referred to as "snappers," are provided.
There have been eighteen Reporters of Decisions since 1804. Prior to 1867, the volumes of reports were named for the Reporter who published them, e.g., 1 Pinckney, 9 Gray, 4 Tyng. Beginning with the volumes next succeeding the series edited by Charles Allen (1861-1867), the volumes were named "Massachusetts Reports" and numbered beginning 97.
Up until 1874, no public office was provided for the Reporter. The court's opinions were kept in the Reporter's private office, or at his house, while they were being prepared for publication. That circumstance made it more difficult for members of the bar and the public to have access to them. In 1874, the legislature responded to that problem by enacting St. 1874, c. 43, requiring that:
"The commonwealth shall provide a safe and convenient place in Boston where the reporter shall keep the written opinions of the court in all law cases argued in the several counties until their publication in the reports, and his dockets and copies of papers in such cases, and where he shall afford due facilities for their examination."
Rights of the public in the opinions
An early decision of the Supreme Judicial Court, Nash v. Lathrop, 142 Mass. 29 (1886), interpreted the rights of the public, the Reporter, his designated publisher, and other competing publications to the court's opinions.
In 1879, and again in 1884, the Commonwealth entered into a contract with Little, Brown, and Company (Little, Brown) that purported to give that publisher an exclusive right of publication of the reports of decisions of the Supreme Judicial Court. By the terms of the contract, the Commonwealth "covenanted that the reporter should prepare and furnish the reports to Little, Brown, and Company, seasonably for publication, and should 'not publish, or furnish for publication, any reports of said decisions in any other manner.' [contract executed between the Commonwealth and Little, Brown, and Company on May 1, 1879.]," Nash v. Lathrop, supra at 30.
In 1886, Joseph Nash, publisher of the Daily Law Record, and two other out-of-State publishers--West Publishing Company and Lawyers Cooperative Publishing Company, both of whom intended to gain access to the decisions through Mr. Nash--brought a petition for a writ of mandamus to compel the reporter, John Lathrop, to allow Mr. Nash to examine, take, and publish the reports in the reporter's custody. Mr. Lathrop refused, at the request of Little, Brown, citing his obligations under the contract.
Chief Justice Marcus Morton, writing for the Supreme Judicial Court, framed the question as "whether the Commonwealth has granted to Little, Brown, and Company the exclusive right of first publication of the opinions of the justices: in other words, whether it has conferred upon that firm the power of saying that such opinions shall not be made public until they are published in their reports." Id. at 35.
The court held that Little, Brown had by contract acquired the copyright in the volumes that had previously been the Reporter's, but this right of publication did not "give to that firm the right to suppress and keep from the public the opinions of the justices until they should print them in the reports." Id. at 39.
The court held further that "[t]he decisions and opinions of the Justices are the authorized expositions and interpretations of the laws which are binding upon all the citizens. They declare the unwritten law, and construe and declare the meaning of the statutes. Every citizen is presumed to know the law thus declared, and it needs no argument to show that justice requires that all should have free access to the opinions, and that it is against sound public policy to prevent this or to suppress and keep from the earliest knowledge of the public the statutes or the decisions and opinions of the justices." Id. at 35. "The policy of the Commonwealth always has been that the opinions of the justices, after they are delivered, belong to the public." Id. at 36.