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Massachusetts Appeals Court: A Pathfinder

Updated by: 
Renee Y. Rastorfer
 Head, Research Services

September 2014

The Massachusetts Appeals Court, an intermediate appellate court, was created in 1972. Prior to its establishment, cases were appealed directly from the trial level to the Supreme Judicial Court. The creation of the Appeals Court reduced the appellate caseload of the Supreme Judicial Court, and allowed the judicial system to eliminate a backlog of cases. Massachusetts became one of many states to use a three-level court system.

The Appeals Court is staffed by 25 active justices, appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the Governor's council. The Court was originally staffed by six justices in 1972. The number of justices increased periodically to 12. In 2001 the number of justices doubled to the present number. Justices serve on the Appeals Court for life, unless they are appointed to another position or removed from the court for bad conduct. Mandatory retirement age for Appeals Court justices is 70. However, retired justices may be retained as "recall" justices who assist with the case load when necessary. The Appeals Court has three recall justices at present.

The justices currently on the Court averaged over 20 years of legal experience prior to their appointments, and over half have previously held judgeships. All had established distinguished careers. Detailed judicial profiles are available to subscribers of the Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly newspaper, on their website. (The Law Library subscribes to Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly; members of the Law School community should see a Librarian for access.) Brief profiles can be found here.

The Appeals Court holds mandatory appellate jurisdiction over almost all cases from the trial-level District Courts. A few types of cases, including first degree murder, are appealed directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. Some civil cases reach the Appeals Court only after being heard by the Appellate Division of the District Court. In addition to the judicial caseload, the Appeals Court hears appeals from the administrative Appellate Tax Board and the Labor Relations Commission. The Court possesses no original jurisdiction, although the Supreme Judicial Court may transfer most items within its original jurisdiction to the lower court. Appellate cases are heard by a panel of three justices. The panel membership rotates regularly, and each justice regularly works with all other justices. 

Single-justice sessions are held for specific purposes, including motions to review certain orders, motions to stay, review of some orders from lower courts, and hearing some administrative appeals. Each justice sits as a single justice for a month at a time. Single-justice sessions are available all year.

The Court usually sits in Boston, during each month from September through June. Throughout the year, the Court travels to other location in Massachusetts. In recent years, the Court has visited Western Massachusetts several times, to hear oral arguments in Springfield. When in Springfield, the Court has been hosted by the Western New England University School of Law. Sessions of the Court are generally open to the public.

The Court of Appeals maintains an easy-to-use, highly informative website. It provides Court schedules, contact information and general information and announcements about the Court. There are also links for various groups of users (pro se) as well as links to Supreme Judicial Court and the Trial Court.

Cases heard in the Appeals Court are printed officially in the Massachusetts Appeals Court Reports and commercially in the Massachusetts Decisions and North Eastern Reporter. Videotapes of some of the sessions held at Western New England University School of Law are available in the Law Library. Records and briefs of cases heard by the Appeals Court are in held in Microform by the Law Library (Massachusetts Appeals Court Records & Briefs, Cabinets 38-39). These records and briefs are arranged according to official citation.

Cases are available in electronic formats in several places. The Appeals Court makes slip opinions available daily, and maintains approximately two weeks of decisions. The most recent opinions are available from the Supreme Judicial Court. Opinions from the past six months are freely available from the Social Law Library, arranged by month. The Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly site has two options: a free database of opinions from 1995-present with full text searching capability, and a subscription-based search of opinion summaries from 1995-present. LexisNexis and Westlaw each offer similiar databases. LexisNexis's is a found under States> Legal-US> Massachusetts >Find Cases> MA Court of Appeals Cases from 1972 to present. Westlaw uses the databases identifier MA-CS for all Massachusetts cases, including the Court of Appeals, beginning with 1972. Briefs, from 1999 to present, are found in the Westlaw database MA-APP-BRIEFS. Docket information is available in DOCK-MA-APP. January 1,2000 through the present are currently available. 

Further Reading: 

Primary Sources

Massachusetts Appeals Court Cases. Several times a year, the Court hears arguments at the Law School. These arguments are filmed and available for viewing. Search in the Law School Catalog for available sessions. 

Massachusetts Appeals Court Records and Briefs. Microform Cabinet 38-39; Microform Index KFM 2448.9 M37.

Massachusetts Appeals Court Reports. Massachusetts Collection.

Massachusetts Decisions. Massachusetts Collection.

North Eastern Reporter.

Secondary Sources

Annual Report On The State Of The Massachusetts Court System KFM 2910 .A879. Annual reports are also available on the State Library of Massachusett's Website.

Appellate Practice in Massachusetts (Neal Quenzar & Hon. Francis X. Spina eds., 3rd ed. 2011). Reserve KF M2955 .A962.

Jerry E. Benezra, Single Justice Practice: How to Effectively File, Argue or Oppose an Appeal (MCLE 1995). KFM 2955 .Z9 S56 1995.

"Massachusetts Appeals Court Rules for the Regulation of Appellate Practice" and "Standing Orders of the Appeals Court in Massachusetts Rules of Court- State" (West-) 491-96. Massachusetts Collection and Reserve.

Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure. Online.

Joseph R. Nolan & Kerry A. Durning, Appellate Procedure (3rd ed., West Massachusetts Practice Series v. 41 2009-).

Joseph R. Nolan & Bruce Henry, Civil Practice (3rd ed., West Massachusetts Practice Series v. 9-9A 2004-). Massachusetts Collection and Reserve.

James W. Smith, Rules Practice (2d ed., West Massachusetts Practice Series v. 6-7 2006-). Massachusetts Collection and Reserve.

Law Reviews, Journals, Legal Newspapers

Appeals Court Establishes Conference Procedure, Mass Law. Wkly. (Aug. 23, 1999).

Davalene Cooper, Developments and Practice Notes: Expedited Appeals in Selected State Appellate Courts Possible, But Not likely: Expedited Appeals in Massachusetts, 4 J. App. Prac. & Process 234 (2002).

Daniel J. Johnedis, Impact of the Appeals Court on the Supreme Judicial Court, 77 Mass. L. Rev. 146 (1992).

Daniel J. Johnedis, Massachusetts' Two-Court Appellate System in Operation, 60 Mass. L. Q. 77 (1975).

Daniel J. Johnedis, Massachusetts' Two Court Appellate System: A Decade of Development, 67 Mass. L. Rev. 103 (1982).

Massachusetts Appeals Court Seeks Input on Proposed Change, Mass. Law. Wkly. (April. 18, 2005).

Massachusetts Lawyer's Weekly. In Reserve and online (please request login information from Reference, 413-782-1458).

Judith E. Miles, The Appeals Court-How it Functions, 67 Mass. L. Rev. 115 (1982).

Number of Appeals Court Judges Nearly Doubles, Providence Journal at 8B (August 18, 2000).

Claire Papanastasiou. The Appeals Court at 25, Mass. Law. Wkly. at B1 (Nov. 17 1997).

Publishing More Appeals Court Decisions, Mass. Law. Wkly. at 10 (May 15, 1995).

Sander A. Rikleen, The Stats Are In on Massachusetts' Appellate Chiefs, Mass. Law. Wkly. (Aug. 14, 2006).

Jonathan Saltzman, Appeals Court Ends 16-Year Backlog, Boston Globe at B3 (June 12, 2004).

Kellie A. Wagner, Appeals Court Makes Unusual Trip: The Appeals Court Heard Five Local Cases Feb. 6 in Springfield, Western Mass. Law Tribune at 1 (February 2002).

David L. Yas, Unpublished Appellate Rulings at Record High: Appeals Court's Use of Rule 1:28 Criticized, Mass. Law. Wkly. at 1 (April 3, 1995).


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