B. The Supreme Judicial Court
2. A Brief History
3. The Justices
4. The Court's Departments
C. The Appeals Court
2. A Brief History
3. The Justices
D. Executive Office of the Trial Court
E. The Trial Courts
F. An Overview of the Trial Process
G. An Overview of the Appellate Process
H. The Social Law Library
The Massachusetts Judicial System
The Social Law Library
Though not a part of the court system, the Social Law Library has had a close relationship with the Massachusetts courts for over 200 years. The Library's first president, Theophilus Parsons, played a critical role in the adoption of the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution. Parsons served as Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court from 1806-1813.
Founded in 1803, the Social Law Library was organized to give the bar the legal research materials needed when the country was rapidly changing from an agrarian society to a complex, urban, industrial society. America was soon to be transformed by the rise of railroads, steam power, the factory system, and the corporate form of business. Whole areas of the law were largely uncultivated, many unknown, and few settled.
Yet there were few indigenous American law books and no published decisions from any American Courts to provide direction. The founding of the Social Law Library played a major role during what historians call the "formative period of American law." Early 19th century newspapers in the Library's archives show how its founding was caught up in an intense, public struggle about the country's legal system. Both locally and nationally, the struggle centered on whether the new nation would "receive" the English common law (hated by Jeffersonians) or rely on legislative codes (like the Napoleonic code actively promoted by Jeffersonians). Nationally, President Jefferson was purging "Federalist" judges from the federal judiciary. But locally, prominent Federalists founded the Social Law Library and aggressively began importing English law books. The bar suddenly had books to research the law, but the bench did not. In 1804, in return for the use of the collection, the Supreme Judicial Court invited the Library into its courthouse where it has remained ever since. At about the same time, the Massachusetts legislature created the Reporter of Decisions office - the first official reporter in the United States.
Taken together, these developments ensured that the English Common law would be adopted in America. Relying on the Social Law Library's imported English materials, Massachusetts lawyers argued - and the Supreme Judicial Court adapted - English common law precedents to fit American conditions. And, as newer states needed law, they naturally looked to the Massachusetts Reports as the leading authority for homegrown law. In this way, the Americanized common law spread throughout the country (except Louisiana, which because of its French heritage, largely adopted the Continental code-based system of jurisprudence.) 9 This is how, for example, the reasonable doubt standard spread from Massachusetts to all fifty states and into our federal law. Many of our nation's greatest lawyers and judges, including Daniel Webster, Supreme Judicial Court Chief Justice Lemuel Shaw, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes relied on the Social Law Library's collection.