Massachusetts Supreme Court

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The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (or SJC) is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The SJC has the distinction of being the oldest continuously functioning appellate court in the Western Hemisphere.

Massachusetts Supreme Court rulings on ballot measures

Year Type Ballot measure Legal issue Plaintiff Defendant Court ruling Impact
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The court was established in 1692 as the "Superior Court of Judicature." Its name was changed to the Supreme Judicial Court after the adoption of the Massachusetts Constitution in 1780.


The seven Justices hear appeals on a broad range of criminal and civil cases between September and May.

Single Justice sessions are held each week throughout the year for certain motions pertaining to cases on trial or on appeal, bail reviews, bar discipline proceedings, petitions for admission to the bar, and a variety of other statutory proceedings. The Associate Justices sit as Single Justices each month on a rotation schedule.

The full bench renders approximately 200 written decisions each year; the single justices decide a total of approximately 600 cases annually.

In addition to its appellate functions, the SJC is responsible for the general superintendence of the judiciary and of the bar, the creation or approval of rules for the operations of all the state courts, and, in certain instances, providing advisory opinions, upon request, to the Governor and General Court on various legal issues.

The SJC also has oversight responsibility in varying degrees, according to statutes, with several affiliated agencies of the judicial branch, including the Board of Bar Overseers, the Board of Bar Examiners, the Clients' Security Board, the Commission on Judicial Conduct, the Massachusetts Legal Assistance Corporation, the Massachusetts Mental Health Legal Advisors’ Committee, and Correctional Legal Services, Inc.

The SJC is sits at the John Adams Courthouse, 1 Pemberton Square, Boston, Massachusetts 02108, which also houses the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the Social Law Library.

Landmark cases

  • Rex v. Preston (1770) - Captain Thomas Preston, the Officer of the Day during the Boston Massacre, was acquitted when the jury was unable to determine whether he had ordered the troops to fire. The defense counsel in the case was a young attorney named John Adams, later the second President of the United States.
  • Rex v. Wemms, et al. (1770) - Six soldiers involved in the Boston Massacre were found not guilty, and two more--the only two proven to have fired--were found guilty of manslaughter.
  • Commonwealth v. Jennison (1783) - The Court declared slavery unconstitutional in the state of Massachusetts by allowing slaves to sue their masters for freedom. Boston lawyer, and member of the Constitutional Convention of 1779, John Lowell, upon the adoption of Article I for inclusion in the Bill of Rights, exclaimed: "...I will render my services as a lawyer gratis to any slave suing for his freedom if it is withheld from him..."[1] With this case, he fulfilled his promise. And Slavery in Massachusetts no longer had any legal standing.
  • Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842) - The Court established that trade unions were not necessarily criminal or conspiring organizations if they did not advocate violence or illegal activities in their attempts to gain recognition through striking. This legalized the existence of non-socialist or non-violent trade organizations, though trade unions would continue to be harassed legally through anti-trust suits and injunctions.
  • Roberts v. Boston (1850) - The Court established the "separate but equal" doctrine that would later be used in Plessy v. Ferguson by maintaining that the law gave school boards complete authority in assigning students to schools and that they could do so along racial lines if they deemed it appropriate.
  • Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003) - The Court ruled that the denial of marriage licenses to same-sex couples violated the Massachusetts Constitution.


The Court consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices appointed by the Governor of Massachusetts with the consent of the Governor's Council. The Justices hold office until the mandatory retirement age of seventy, like all other Massachusetts judges.

Current composition

The currently serving justices are:

  • Margaret H. Marshall (Chief)
  • John M. Greaney
  • Roderick L. Ireland
  • Francis X. Spina
  • Judith A. Cowin
  • Robert J. Cordy
  • Margot Botsford

Notable members


  1. Lowell, Delmar R., The Historic Genealogy of the Lowells of America from 1639 to 1899 (p 35); Rutland VT, The Tuttle Company, 1899; ISBN 9780788415678.

External links