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Court Basics: An Informational Guide for Journalists

Learn about bail, sentencing, dangerousness hearings and more.

General Information on the Massachusetts Court System
This link includes information about different kinds of proceedings in the seven court departments and has links to useful guides explaining different court processes. https://www.mass.gov/topics/courts-self-help

Criminal Court Process
This link explains the criminal court process starting with arrest and ending with verdict. https://www.mass.gov/handbook/understanding-the-criminal-court-process

Release on bail, under G. L. c. 276, §§ 57 and 58, serves two purposes. First, it preserves the liberty of a person accused of a crime until the person has been afforded the full measure of due process in a criminal trial. Second, it assures that the person will appear in court when called to do so. See Brangan v. Commonwealth, at https://www.mass.gov/decision/brangan-v-commonwealth, concerning the amount of bail set.

See also Findings and Order Regarding Bail, and Trial Court Guidelines for Pretrial Conditions of Release.

Dangerousness Hearing
General Laws c. 276, § 58A authorizes a judge, on motion of a prosecutor, to order a criminal defendant detained before trial where the defendant has been charged with at least one of the offenses specified in § 58A, and where the Commonwealth establishes, by clear and convincing evidence, that no conditions of release will reasonably assure the safety of any other person or the community. Alternatively, depending on the circumstances, the judge can release the defendant on personal recognizance or on particular conditions. See William Scione vs. Commonwealth; Commonwealth vs. David W. Barnes

See sample Findings and Order on Motion for Detention under G.L.c. 276 s. 58A.

See Trial Court Rule VIII: Uniform Rules on Impoundment Procedure

This link provides an in-depth look at sentencing best practices by court department. The best practices provide a set of general principles a judge may consider in the formulation of a criminal sentence.

Massachusetts Code of Judicial Conduct
Per the Code: "The Code of Judicial Conduct establishes standards for the ethical conduct of judges. It is not intended as an exhaustive guide for the conduct of judges, who are governed in their judicial and personal conduct by general ethical standards as well as by the Code. The Code is intended, however, to provide guidance and to assist judges to maintain the highest standards of judicial and personal conduct, and to provide a basis for regulation of their conduct through disciplinary authorities."

The Code of Judicial Conduct has rules governing when a judge may comment on a case. See SJC Rule 3:09, Rule 2.4 and Comment on the rule; and Rule 2.10(D)&(E), and Comment on these parts of Rule 2.10.  

Judicial Independence
See Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, Part 1, art. XXIX (formal name of the Massachusetts Constitution):

"It is essential to the rights of every individual, his life, liberty, property, and character, that there be an impartial interpretation of the laws, and administration of justice. It is the right of every citizen to be tried by judges as free, impartial and independent as the lot of humanity will admit.  It is therefore, not only the best policy, but for the security of the rights of the people, and of every citizen, that the judges of the supreme judicial court should hold their offices as long as they behave themselves well, and that they should have honorable salaries ascertained and established by standing laws." 

Corresponding language about tenure of all "judicial officers" and provisions for removal (with retirement at 70) can be found in part 2, chapter 3, article I. 

Supreme Judicial Court Rule 1:19: Electronic Access to the Courts
The Public Information Office registers members of the media under SJC Rule 1:19, which allows for registered media to bring electronic devices into the courtroom. Information about who qualifies, what is allowed and how to register is online here: https://www.mass.gov/courtroom-media-access

Trial Court Rule XIV: Uniform Rules on Public Access to Court Records
These rules are intended to provide public access to court records and information while protecting the security and privacy of litigants and non-litigants. These rules govern access to the court records of the Trial Court. The rules apply to all court records, regardless of the physical form, method of recording, or method of storage, subject to these rules and the technological capacity of the Trial Court to make such a court record available. Administrative records of the Trial Court are not within the scope of these rules. More information about the rules and what is available to the public and press is online here:

See Trial Court Rule XIV:

Access to online docket information, calendars & decisions

Trial Court

Supreme Judicial Court and Appeals Court