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How Does the Massachusetts Appeals Court Work?

The Massachusetts Appeals Court is the intermediate appellate court in the state. The court receives appeals from the seven Trial Court departments, including the Superior Courts, Boston Municipal Court, District Courts, Probate and Family Courts, Land Courts, Juvenile Courts, and Housing Courts.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court has general appellate jurisdiction over various types of cases that were initially heard at Trial Court departments. These cases include civil and criminal cases. The justices in the Massachusetts Appeals Court may review decisions already made by the judges from the various Departments of the Trial Court. In addition, the Appeals Court has appellate jurisdiction to review final decisions from specific state agencies, including the Appellate Tax Board, the Commonwealth Employment Relations Board, and the Industrial Accident Board.

When a party files an appeal to the Appeals Court, the justices read the submitted written arguments, referred to as “briefs,” and may also hear arguments in a court session referred to as “oral arguments.” The Appeals Court does not retry the cases or make fact-based determinations during an oral argument. It only reviews a Trial Court department’s rulings for law errors and then decides whether the errors made (if any) affected the verdict of the case.

The Appeals Court holds several oral argument sessions at the John Adams Courthouse in Boston for every month between September and June. The court also has sessions in other venues outside Boston, typically in a regional courthouse or at law schools across the state. The Appeals Court sessions are open to the public.

After an oral argument, the three justices constituting the panel will write a decision for the court. This decision is referred to as an “opinion.” In cases where the justices disagree, and there is more than one opinion, there will be a vote of opinions.

The Appeals Court also runs a continuous single justice session, with a separate docket, in addition to its appellate, or “panel,” jurisdiction. The single justice panel may review orders for injunctive relief and interlocutory orders issued by specific Trial Court departments. It also reviews certain attorney fee awards, requests for review of summary process appeal bonds, motions to review impoundment orders, and motions for stays (postponement) of civil proceedings or criminal sentences pending appeal. Each associate justice sits as a single justice for one month at a time.

Note that even though most appeals are entered initially in the Appeals Court, some are transferred to the Supreme Judicial Court. However, most of these appeals will be decided by the Appeals Court. Also, certain types of appeals do not go to the Appeals Court. For instance, a petition for appeal from a first-degree murder conviction is transferred directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. Within the District Court Department’s limits, appeals in certain civil cases are first made to the Appellate Division of the District Court.

The Massachusetts Appeals Court is made up of twenty-five statutory justices, including the chief justice. Most times, the court sits in panels of three. However, the structure of the three-judge panels changes regularly, to ensure that each justice has the opportunity to sit with every other justice.

The selection of justices in the Massachusetts Appeals Court is done through gubernatorial appointment with approval from the Governor’s Council and the judicial nominating commission. The justices in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts do not have fixed terms and may serve life-long tenures until the compulsory retirement age of 70. At this age, the justices must step down.

To qualify as a justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court, the candidate must be under the age of 70 and must also be a citizen and resident of the United States and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, respectively. Each justice must have at least 13 years of legal experience and trading, and must be of good standing in the state bar.

Individuals interested in obtaining court records and dockets from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Appellate courts may use the public case search portal and input the search criteria. For instance, requestors may conduct a regular case search with the first name, last name, docket number, and court calendar. Other searches that can be conducted through this search portal include:

  • Involved Party Search—This allows searches using the first name, last name, year filed, case status, case category, and case type.
  • Docket Number Search - Search with the docket number of the case of interest.
  • Attorney Appearance Search—This allows searches using the first name (optional), last name, year filed, case status, case category, and case type.
  • Lower Court Judge Search - The search criteria include the last name, lower court, year filed, case status, case category, and case type.
  • Lower Court Search - The search criteria include the lower court, county, year filed, case status, case category, and case type.

The Appeals Court is located at:

John Adams Courthouse,
One Pemberton Square,
Room 1200, Boston, MA 02108
Clerk’s Office: (617) 921–4443
Judges’ Lobby: (617) 725–8085
Human Resources Department: (617) 723–1533
Oral Argument Postponement or Cancellation Updates Line: (617) 725–8114

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