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Massachusetts Judicial Branch

The Judicial Branch  of the Massachusetts government hears criminal and civil cases. The Supreme Judicial Court, the highest court, also advises the governor and legislature on questions of law.  Judges in Massachusetts are appointed by the governor and can hold office until the mandatory retirement age of 70.

What do the courts in Massachusetts do?

The Massachusetts Trial Courts  are made up of seven departments with different jurisdictions:

  • Superior Court: The Superior Court has original jurisdiction in civil actions over $25,000, and in matters where equitable relief is sought. It also has original jurisdiction in actions involving labor disputes where injunctive relief is sought, and has exclusive authority to convene medical malpractice tribunals. This Court has exclusive original jurisdiction in first degree murder cases and original jurisdiction for all other crimes. It has jurisdiction over all felony matters, although it shares jurisdiction over crimes where other Trial Court Departments have concurrent jurisdiction. Finally, the Superior Court has appellate jurisdiction over certain administrative proceedings.
  • District Courts: often called “The People’s Court.” They handle smaller violations of criminal and civil law. There are 62 separate courts and buildings.
  • Boston Municipal Court Department: the district court for Boston. It handles civil and criminal cases. This court acts separately from other district courts.
  • Probate and Family Courts: handle family issues, such as wills, estates, divorces and adoptions. There are 18 locations.
  • Land Courts: handle property matters and boundary disputes.
  • Juvenile Courts: have jurisdiction over youthful offenders, care and protection petitions, adoption and guardianship and other matters dealing with people under 18.  There are 11 divisions with sessions in over 40 locations.
  • Housing Courts: deal with tenant/landlord grievances, building rules violations, and other matters concerning real property.

The Appeals Court is the court to which appeals from the seven courts mentioned above may be sent in the case of possible error. The Appeals Court sits in Boston, but holds some sessions in other venues.  Its sessions are open to the public.

The Supreme Judicial Court is the court of last appeal for state cases.  It was established in 1692 and is the oldest appellate court in continuous existence in the Western Hemisphere. The seven justices selects the ccases to be heard.  It decides whether certain petitions, such as citizens petitions, are legal.

  • Advises the legislature, the governor and the Governor’s Council upon request
  • Oversees the entire court system in Massachusetts including the discipline of judges
  • Considers constitutional questions, such as whether certain laws or actions are permitted under the state constitution.

Who are the judicial personnel in the state’s court system?

  • Judges preside over cases. They may also determine guilt in cases without a jury. They are appointed by the governor from a list submitted by the judicial Nominating Council and must be confirmed by the Governor’s Council. Judges must retire at age 70.
  • Clerks are the chief administrative officers. They serve under a judge and are elected, or appointed by the governor.
  • District attorneys are elected investigators and prosecutors. They are legal representatives of the people.
  • Judicial Conduct Commission receives and investigates complaints about the conduct or disability of judges, and may recommend disciplinary action to the Supreme Judicial Court.

Jury Duty

Jury Duty is the responsibility of citizens to serve on juries to decide whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty in a criminal case. Juries also determine the amount of money damages in a civil case. This is an important example of direct democracy. In Massachusetts, adult citizens are called to make themselves available for possible jury duty for one day or one trial. Names are drawn from the street lists by computer, not from voter registration rolls.

Jury duty is a responsibility and privilege of citizens so that defendants may be judged by their peers.

See the Judicial Branch website for detailed information on jury duty, including qualifications and compensation. People summoned to jury duty can postpone their service for up to one year.