The distinction between "general" and "special" legislation is neither new, nor peculiar to Massachusetts. Sutherland, Statutes and Statutory Construction (Norman J. Singer, 6 th ed., pp. 211-212). While most states (forty) have express constitutional prohibitions against special legislation, Massachusetts and the other New England states do not. Id, p. 212. In Massachusetts, this may be because long-standing case law achieves the same effect.
Beginning with the 1814 decision in Holden v. James, 11 Mass. 396, the Supreme Judicial Court has interpreted Article 10 of the Declaration of Right of the Massachusetts Constitution, the "standing laws" provision, as prohibiting the enactment of special legislation that singles out any person for special privileges or advantages at the expense of the rights of another. Holden involved a statute which gave Holden, by name, the right to pursue a specific time-barred claim. The Court held that the constitutional guarantee of protection to every citizen "in the enjoyment of his life, liberty, and property, according to standing laws" was violated by an enactment which "suspend[ed] the law with respect to any one citizen, or any one particular suit, leaving it in full force as to all others." 11 Mass. at 402. It stated further: "It is manifestly contrary to the first principles of civil liberty and natural justice, and to the spirit of our constitution and laws, that any one citizen should enjoy privileges and advantages which are denied to all others under like circumstances; or that any one should be subjected to losses, damages, suits, or actions, from which all others, under like circumstances, are exempted." 11 Mass. at 403-405.
Subsequent Supreme Judicial Court decisions throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries reiterated the Holden precedent in terms of a prohibition against special legislation singling out a particular individual for favorable treatment, accompanied by a corresponding injury to someone else. Commissioner of Public Health v. Bessie M. Burke Memorial Hospital, supra, 366 Mass. at 740-745 (collecting cases); Paddock v. Town of Brookline, 347 Mass. 230, 233-240 (1964) (same). The former case, citing Forster v. Forster, 129 Mass. 559, 561-562 (1880) defined "special or private laws," "very roughly," as "legislation addressed to a particular situation, that does not establish a rule of future conduct with any substantial degree of generality, and may provide ad hoc benefits of some kind for an individual or a number of them." Commissioner of Public Health v. Bessie M. Burke Memorial Hospital, supra, 366 Mass. at 740.
The Holden principle remains good law. Kienzler v. Dalkon Shield Claimants Trust, 426 Mass. 87, 89 (1997) (statutes which allowed single named individuals to maintain suits that would otherwise have been barred by a general statute were held to violate Article 10). This principle does not bar all special legislation; to the contrary, the General Court has power to enact special legislation in many contexts. Commissioner of Public Health v. Bessie M. Burke Memorial Hospital, supra, 366 Mass. at 740. What it does not have power to do, under Holden and subsequent cases, is to enact special legislation in the absence of a public purpose. Kienzler, supra, 426 Mass. at 90-92; City of Boston v. Keene Corp., 406 Mass. 301, 304-309; Commissioner of Public Health v. Bessie M. Burke Memorial Hospital, supra, 366 Mass. at 740-745.