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