Learn about the court appellate process

Find out how the appellate process works in the Massachusetts Court System.

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An appeal is available if a party isn’t satisfied with the result at the trial level. Our court system provides every litigant — except for the government in criminal cases — with the right to have the trial court proceedings reviewed by an appellate court.

The party who wants to appeal is called an appellant, and the responding party is called an appellee.

The appellate courts (Appeals Court and Supreme Judicial Court (SJC)) don't retry cases or hear new evidence. They review what happened in the trial court to make sure that the correct law was applied and that the proceedings were fair. Each side presents a written argument to the appellate court in a document called a brief. Others who may be interested in a particular case may ask to file an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief.

The arguments made in briefs vary. However, common grounds for an appeal include claims that the trial was conducted unfairly or that the trial judge didn’t apply the applicable law correctly. In rare instances, a party may claim that the law that was applied violates the United States or Massachusetts constitutions.

After all briefs are received, a case is scheduled for oral argument by the Appeals Court or the SJC. At oral argument, which generally lasts 15 minutes per side, each lawyer has a chance to present arguments directly to the justices who will be deciding the case. The justices usually ask the lawyers questions.

In Massachusetts, appeals first go to the Appeals Court, with the exception of first degree murder convictions, which go directly to the SJC. A party that’s unhappy with the Appeals Court's decision may ask to have a case reviewed again by the SJC.

Additionally, the SJC has the power to transfer cases directly from the Appeals Court before they have been argued there. These transfers can be made if a party requests it or by the court's own choice. This process minimizes the number of cases that must be decided by both the Appeals Court and the SJC.

Overall, the SJC and the Appeals Court agree with, or affirm, trial court decisions about 80% of the time — in about 15% of cases, the appellate court reverses the trial court. In the remaining 5% of cases, some other result is reached, such as agreeing one part of the case and reversing another part.

A party that loses before the SJC, or loses before the Appeals Court if the SJC won’t review the case, may ask for review by the United States Supreme Court if the case involves a federal law or interpretation of the United States Constitution.

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Last updated: July 9, 2019

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