Massachusetts Criminal Justice System
The Massachusetts court system can be very confusing. While Massachusetts has a uniform system of rules governing procedure, each individual court adopts its own particular procedures for various court functions. Indeed, even the court documents vary, sometimes considerably, based on the needs and preferences of the Clerk’s Offices and presiding Judges. It can be quite baffling, even for experienced Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers.
But while the procedures may differ and familiarity with those procedures can be important, the eloquence, passion and persuasiveness of the Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer often remains the determining factor in whether he is successful in representing you.
Supreme Judicial Court
The Court is the final arbiter of questions of Massachusetts State law or the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights. The Court will also interpret federal constitutional law. The Court is staffed by a Chief Justice and six associate justices. Although most appeals are first heard and decided by the Appeals Court (see below), the “SJC” can exercise its discretion and assume jurisdiction over any appeal pending in the appeals court. The SJC also exercises exclusive jurisdiction over all appeals from defendants convicted of first degree murder. The Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers appearing before the Commonwealth’s highest court are expected to be extrremely well versed in the law, able to draft comprehensive, clear, and concise appellate briefs.
The Appeals Court hears and decides appeals from the District and Superior Courts rulings and verdicts, as well as other courts, such as the probate and housing courts. It has no jurisdiction over appeals from convictions for first degree murder. The Appeals Court tends to be a “hot” court, with the justices frequently interrupting the lawyers to ask questions.
This trial court is a court of original and general jurisdiction. It has jurisdiction over all crimes committed in Massachusetts. For the Superior Court to take jurisdiction over the prosecution of a crime, the District Attorney’s Office must first persuade the grand jury to hand down a criminal indictment against the defendant. Superior Court juries are made up of twelve jurors. Because of the seriousness of the cases, Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers must be experienced and court savvy to adequately represent their clients. Superior Court judges expect lawyers to be able to identify the relevant legal issues, draft persuasive briefs, and competently represent clients during trials. Unfortunately, few Superior Court judges have seen enough quality trial attorneys to fully grasp what an skilled, fearless, and forceful criminal defense lawyer can accomplish with his cross-examinations. In short, these judges, while often critical of the attorneys appearing before them, tend to over estimate their adequacy.
This trial court has jurisdiction, concurrently with the Superior Court, over misdemeanors, felonies that are punishable by imprisonment in the state prison for not more than five years, and violations of bylaws, orders, ordinances, rules and regulations promulgated by cities, towns, and public officers. Unlike the Superior Court in which the District Attorney’s Office prosecutes indictments, prosecutors in District Court pursue criminal complaints issued by the clerk’s office. Criminal defendants – who have not yet been indicted – may be first arraigned in District Court on a complaint for a crime over which the District Court actually has no final jurisdiction. If and when an indictment is returned by a grand jury, the defendant will be re-arraigned in Superior Court. The District Attorney will likely nolle pros (drop) the charges against the defendant once he is arraigned in Superior Court. Of the thousands of individuals charged with criminal offenses in District Court only a very small percentage will indicted. District Court juries are limited to six jurors. Because both the Defense and the Prosecution are limited to two peremptory challenges, jury selection usually takes no more than an hour in District Court. Massachusetts criminal defense lawyers practicing in the District Courts must be well-prepared for the fast pace of a District Court trial.
Information on Specific Superior and District Courts
Please find information on Woburn Superior & District Courts, Lowell Superior & District Courts, Cambridge District Court, Framingham District Court, Somerville District Court, and Waltham District Court.