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Justice in the Bay State: An Overview of the Massachusetts Court System

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Did you know that the Massachusetts court system is one of the oldest of its kind in the world? From its inception in 1692, its purpose has remained the same: to interpret and apply the rule of law while ensuring equal justice for all. If you’re involved in any kind of legal proceeding, even indirectly, you’ve likely encountered this branch of government in action. In this post, we’ll break down the departments that make up both the trial and appellate arms of the Massachusetts Court System and examine each of their functions.

Trial Court Departments

Massachusetts trial courts are divided into several different departments: Boston Municipal Court, district court, housing court, juvenile court, land court, probate and family court, and superior court. 

District Court

Massachusetts District Court hears a huge range of both criminal and civil cases in 62 courthouses across the state. When it comes to criminal law, the District Court has jurisdiction over:

  • All felonies punishable by a sentence up to five years in state prison (and certain other felonies with greater penalties)
  • All misdemeanors
  • All violations of city and town ordinances/by-laws
  • Issuing search warrants

The District Court also holds probable cause hearings for cases that might be seen by the Superior Court.

In terms of civil cases, the District Court conducts trials in any case where damages are less than $50K, as well as for small claims (under $7000).

There is also an Appellate Division of the District Court that hears appeals on judgements in any of the cases mentioned above.

Boston Municipal Court

As you might have guessed from the name, Boston Municipal Court (BMC) serves the Bay State’s capital, Boston. The court consists of 30 judges in 8 court divisions across the city, and addresses low level judicial matters for Boston’s 650K+ residents. These court divisions are as follows:

  • Brighton (includes Allston)
  • Central (includes the downtown Boston area, Chinatown, North End, West End, South End through Massachusetts Avenue, and Beacon Hill)
  • Charlestown
  • Dorchester
  • East Boston (includes Winthrop, Logan Airport, the Sumner Tunnel, and the Callahan Tunnel)
  • Roxbury
  • South Boston
  • West Roxbury (includes Hyde Park, Roslindale, Jamaica Plain, and parts of Mattapan and Mission Hill)

BMC’s role is very similar to that of other Massachusetts district courts and helps alleviate the case load presented by such a densely populated area. Its jurisdiction includes (but is not limited to):

  • Felony criminal cases punishable by up to five years in state prison
  • Any felonies or misdemeanors that don’t require a state prison sentence 
  • Civil cases where damages are less than $50K
  • Small claims cases (less than $7000)
  • Eviction cases
  • Restraining and harassment prevention orders
  • Violations of certain city ordinances
  • Motor vehicle violations
  • Mental health matters

Housing Court

Massachusetts’s Housing Court consists of a chief justice and 15 other judges who preside over six judicial divisions. The sole purpose of housing court is to settle matters related to, you guessed it, housing! This includes cases involving:

  • Breach of contract
  • Code enforcement
  • Eviction 
  • Discrimination
  • Personal injury
  • Property damage cases
  • Residential zoning
  • Small claims

Juvenile Court

In Massachusetts, cases involving one or more parties under the age of eighteen may be handled by the Juvenile Court Department. It consists of over 40 locations across 11 divisions that are overseen by 42 judges. Types of juvenile court cases include:

  • Criminal cases involving a juvenile offender
  • Delinquency cases
  • Care and protection orders

Juvenile court is not to be confused with probate and family court, which is a separate department within the Massachusetts court system – we’ll touch on it shortly!

Land Court

Land Court adjudicates civil matters involving land use and real estate and is based primarily in Boston. However, the seven justices of the court may travel anywhere in the state to hear cases. Types of Land Court cases might include:

  • Disputes about property boundaries, easements, and other aspects of land ownership
  • Foreclosures
  • Mortgage title disputes
  • Contract disputes involving the sale of real estate
  • Zoning and subdivision appeals

In addition to hearing court cases, Massachusetts’s Land Court oversees the system for registration of land titles, which means it plays a huge role in the ownership (and transfer of ownership) of land.

Probate & Family Court

As mentioned briefly above, the work of the 14 divisions of the Probate and Family Court shares a number of similarities with that of the Juvenile Court – namely, they both handle cases involving minors. However, Probate and Family Court retains jurisdiction in cases involving the family unit, like:

  • Divorce proceedings
  • Adoptions and child custody cases
  • Determination of child support and paternity
  • Abuse prevention

The Probate and Family Court Department also oversees the administration of guardianships, wills, trusts, and estates.

Superior Court

Last, but certainly not least, we have Massachusetts Superior Court. This trial court consists of 82 justices across all 14 counties in the state and is one of the highest state judicial authorities (a step below the Supreme Judicial Court). The Superior Court has jurisdiction over:

  • First-degree murder cases and all other crimes
  • Civil actions that involve damages over $50K
  • Medical malpractice tribunals
  • Labor disputes
  • Matters where parties are seeking equitable relief
  • Naturalization proceedings

Appellate Courts

A trial court verdict is not the end of the road for many cases in the Massachusetts justice system. After a judgment is handed down, the guilty/responsible party has the option to file an appeal, which means the case moves from the trial court system into the appellate court system. The function of appellate courts in Massachusetts is to review trial court decisions for errors of law. If the justices feel that errors are present and they affect the outcome of the given case, they may issue an opinion reversing the trial court’s decision. (Note: this is not the same as a retrial.)

There are three levels of appellate jurisdiction in Massachusetts: the appellate division of the District Court, the Appeals Court, and the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.

Appeals Court

The majority of appeals in Massachusetts are heard by the Appeals Court. This department consists of 25 judges who typically sit on panels of three to review decisions made by:

  • Any of the Departments of the Trial Court (District Court, Juvenile Court, etc.)
  • The Appellate Tax Board
  • The Commonwealth Employment Relations Board
  • The Industrial Accident Board

However, there are a few types of cases that will not be heard by the Appeals Court, including appeals relating to convictions of first-degree murder (transferred directly to the Supreme Judicial Court) and certain District Court civil appeals (would be made first to the Appellate Division of the District Court).

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) is the highest appellate court in the Commonwealth and the oldest continually operating court of its kind in the Western Hemisphere. It’s made up of a chief justice and six associate justices who are appointed the Governor and approved by the Governor’s Council. Like all judges in Massachusetts, the justices of the SJC may hold their office until the age of 70, when their retirement is mandated.

The SJC is in session from September to May each year. The full bench hears appeals on a huge range of both civil and criminal matters and then issues opinions (decisions) which can be accessed online. The court also holds sessions overseen by single justices each week for a variety of statutory matters. Between all of these proceedings, the SJC will render approximately 800 decisions per year.

Navigating the Massachusetts Court System

The Massachusetts Court System is, quite frankly, a complex beast. While some people elect to represent themselves in certain civil cases, it’s not a good idea. Even a seemingly small dispute can escalate into a major case that requires months of intense legal review and paperwork.  

That’s why we’re here for you.

KJC Law Firm has over 125 years of combined experience litigating major personal injury  cases. We have the resources to investigate your claim, hire the necessary experts, and get you the compensation you deserve. We understand the effects an injury or accident can have on you and your family, and we know the methods the insurance companies will try to use to blame you, even when it isn’t your fault. We’re here to help – schedule a free consultation with our team to start your journey to restitution.

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