Massachusetts Courts

Massachusetts Court System

The court system in the United States can be a confusing place. This confusion stems from the fact that there is no one judicial system, there are many. Each of the 50 states (and territories) operates as an independent, autonomous unit. Thus each state has different laws and differing court structures. Next to all of these operations sits the federal government, which also has its own laws and courts. To further complicate matters, these systems often overlap. Parties to a lawsuit often have a choice over whether to bring their case to state or federal court. State courts are often called upon to enforce federal law, and federal courts sometimes must apply state law. Yet despite this complexity all of these systems manage to interact and coexist with one another.What follows is an overview (with diagrams) of how the Massachusetts state courts are organized.


Court System Diagram ,The Trial Courts

The Superior Courts, District Courts

Trial Court Diagram

Other Trial Court Departments: Land Court, Juvenile Court, Housing Court, Boston Municipal Court, Probate and Family Court

Appeals Court , Supreme Judicial Court

 Massachusetts Courts:

The Massachusetts court system is organized on three basic levels: the trial courts, the appeals courts, headed by the Supreme Judicial Court.

 The Massachusetts Trial Courts:

The trial courts form the largest part of the system. When cases are started in Massachusetts courts, they are brought to the trial court. If you sue a contractor for putting a leaky roof on your house or are charged with a crime, you will be in trial court. The trial court is further subdivided into 7 departments, these departments are each geared to handle particular kinds of cases, although many of these courts share jurisdiction with the other trial courts. For example if you are getting a divorce or think you have money coming to you via a will, you may bring your case to the Probate and Family Court Department. However, the majority of cases at the trial court level go to either what are called "district courts" or to "superior courts."

  Massachusetts Superior Courts:
Superior Courts are authorized to hear civil cases if the claim is likely to result in more than 25,000 dollars. The damages claimed must generally be actual, not merely speculative. Thus if you claim 500 dollars worth of damage to your new corvette and 24,500 for emotional distress, a judge will likely send your case down to the district court (Note: the district court does not place a cap on the amount of damages, so it would be possible to win over 25,000 dollars in cases brought in District Court). Serious criminal cases are also likely to be brought in Superior Court.

Trials in Superior Court will either be before a judge or a jury, depending on what the parties decide. In a jury trial, the jurors act as a fact finder deciding which witnesses are telling the truth and how strong the evidence is, they then make a decision guided by the judge as to what the applicable law is. If the parties elect to go before a judge, they will have a bench trial in which the judge will act as the fact finder as well as making a determination according to the law.

The Superior Courts have 20 locations throughout the state. The administrative office is located in Boston at 1112 New Courthouse Boston,MA 02108 tel.617-725-8130.

 Massachusetts District Courts:
The District Courts dispose of more cases than Superior Courts and with 168 Justices are the largest component of the Massachusetts court system. These courts hear all kinds of civil cases (no monetary limit), including small claims (2000 dollar maximum). They also are responsible for misdemeanors and crimes that carry penalties of less than 5 years imprisonment. Jury trials are offered for criminal cases and small claims appeals, most cases in district court are heard before a judge (bench trials).

The District Courts have 69 divisions in the state. The administrative office is located in Salem: Holyoke Bldg., Holyoke Sq. Salem 01970 tel. 508-745-9010.

Massachusetts Trial Court System


 Other Massachusetts Trial Court Departments:

Land Court

The Land Court is a specialized court designed to hear cases involving real property. Massachusetts has a land registration system, in which disputes and questions over title can be settled in court. A property owner registers his land by filing with the court which examines the title to the property. After this search is completed, the court issues a new certificate of title which includes references to any encumbrances on the property. The Land Court has exclusive jurisdiction over this registration system as well as exclusive jurisdiction in cases involving real estate tax liens. The court has shared jurisdiction over planning and zoning board appeals and other cases involving real property. The Land Court is located in Boston and hears cases statewide. Address: 408 Old Courthouse, Boston MA 02108 tel. 617-227-7470

Massachusetts Juvenile Court
The Juvenile Court, as you may have guessed, deals with matters involving children. The court hears cases terminating parental rights, adoption, child support, appointment of guardians and failure to attend school, among others. The court has 5 locations. The administrative office is located at 18 Tremont St., Ste 1050 Boston, MA tel. 617-367-5767

Housing Court
The Housing Court specializes in handling cases involving landlord-tenant disputes, evictions, violations of the housing code and other related matters. The Housing Court shares jurisdiction with the District and Superior Courts over many civil matters including torts, contracts, discrimination, criminal cases and small claims. The has 6 primary locations. The administrative office is located at 1000 Old Courthouse, Boston, MA 02108 tel.617-227-7470

Boston Municipal Court
The Boston Municipal Court primarily handles cases that are brought in Boston and Suffolk county. The Court has jurisdiction in criminal cases that do not require a prison sentence and conducts probable cause hearings in cases in which a prison term is mandatory. Jury trials are available in criminal cases. The Court shares jurisdiction with selected District Courts in Middlesex (Roxbury, Brighton) and Suffolk counties (Newton, Cambridge and Waltham).

The Court has jurisdiction over many types of civil cases where the defendants live or do business in Suffolk county, including contracts, torts, and small claims. A defendant who appeals a small claims judgment and requests a jury trial usually does so here. The court has one location: 380 Old Courthouse, Boston, MA 02108 tel. 617-725-8000

Probate and Family Court Department
The Court has jurisdiction over wills, trusts and related matters. If someone dies and leaves a will this is the court responsible for examining its validity. This Court also has jurisdiction over family law issues including divorce, support, custody and adoptions. This Court does not conduct jury trials. The Probate and Family Court has 20 locations throughout the state. The administrative office is at: 3 Center Plaza, 9th Floor, Boston, MA 02108 tel. 617-742-9743

 Appeals Court

The appeals court is the place where people go when they aren't satisfied with the lower courts decision. Although everyone who loses is unhappy, only a small percentage of civil cases are ever appealed. On the other hand, people who are in jail are very unhappy and consequently a large number of criminal convictions are appealed.

An appeal is very different from a case brought to a trial court. The primary purpose of an appeal is to correct legal mistakes, not rehear the facts. As a result, the appeals court has no juries whose function it is to resolve disputed factual questions, such as deciding whether a witness is telling the truth. Instead, cases in the appeals court are reviewed by a panel of three judges who examine the trial court record looking for mistakes made by the judge or jury regarding the law. Often these mistakes will be very technical, involving a piece of evidence or testimony that was improperly admitted. The person appealing will argue that this evidence should not have been presented to the jury and that since they were exposed to it the trial was unfair and the decision should be overturned. The appeals court is obviously reluctant to do this even if it finds a mistake and will reverse a lower courts decision only if it believes the outcome would have been different had the error not been made.

Most cases that are appealed go to this court, a few types of appeals including appeals from 1st degree murder convictions, may bypass it and go directly to the Supreme Judicial Court. The Appeals Court is at 1500 New Courthouse, 15th Flr Boston MA 02108 Tel. 617-725-8106


The Supreme Judicial Court, a.k.a. the SJC, is the oldest sitting court in the United States (tied with Maine). The SJC heads the Massachusetts judicial system and like the appeals court only reviews cases after they have been tried by a lower court. As noted above most appealed cases go to the appeals court, only a few types of cases such as appeals from first degree murder convictions may go directly to the SJC.

As our states highest court, the SJC plays an important role in shaping our laws and protecting our rights. Under the distinctly American political theory of judicial review, this court has the power to interpret laws passed by the legislature and declare them void if it finds that the newly created law conflicts with the State or Federal Constitution. As a result, many of the cases decided by the SJC are far more important than the individual matter being litigated. The SJC is located at 1300 New Courthouse Boston, MA 02108 Tel. 617-557-1000


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