Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

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Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court
Court information
Justices:   7
Founded:   1692
Location:   Boston, Massachusetts
Chief:  $151,000
Associates:  $146,000
Judicial selection
Method:   Gubernatorial appointment of judges
Term:   Until 70 years of age
Active justices

Roderick Ireland  •  Francis Spina  •  Robert Cordy  •  Margot Botsford  •  Barbara Lenk  •  Fernande Duffly  •  Ralph D. Gants  •  

Seal of Massachusetts.png

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Formerly called the Superior Court of Judicature, the court has the distinction of being the oldest continuously functioning appellate court in the Western Hemisphere. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 changed the name and established the current powers of the court. It is considered to be the oldest written constitution still currently in use.


The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has 7 justices.
JudgeTermAppointed byParty
Chief Justice Roderick Ireland1997-2014Gov. Deval Patrick
Justice Francis Spina1999-2016
Justice Robert Cordy2001-2019
Justice Margot Botsford2007-2017Gov. Deval Patrick
Justice Barbara Lenk2011-2020Gov. Deval Patrick
Justice Fernande Duffly2011-presentGov. Deval Patrick
Justice Ralph D. Gants2009-2024Gov. Deval Patrick


According to the Massachusetts Constitution, "all causes of marriage, divorce, and alimony, and all appeals from the judges of probate shall be heard and determined by the governor and council, until the legislature shall, by law, make other provision."[1]

Judicial selection

The Court consists of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. Each justice is appointed by the state Governor with the consent of the Governor's Council. Additionally, justices on the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court hold tenure until the age of mandatory retirement, age 70.

Political outlook

See also: Political outlook of State Supreme Court Justices

In October 2012, political science professors Adam Bonica and Michael Woodruff of Stanford University attempted to determine the partisan outlook of State Supreme Court justices in their paper, State Supreme Court Ideology and 'New Style' Judicial Campaigns. A score above 0 indicated a more conservative leaning ideology while scores below 0 were more liberal. The state Supreme Court of Massachusetts was given a Campaign finance score (CFscore) which was calculated for judges in October 2012. At that time, Massachusetts received a score of -0.44. Based on the justices selected, Massachusetts was the 11th most liberal court. The study is based on data from campaign contributions by judges themselves, the partisan leaning of contributors to the judges or, in the absence of elections, the ideology of the appointing body (governor or legislature). This study is not a definitive label of a justice but rather, an academic gauge of various factors.[2]


Removal of justices

"Massachusetts judges may be removed in one of three ways: The commission on judicial conduct investigates complaints of judicial misconduct. Following a formal hearing, the commission may recommend to the supreme judicial court removal, retirement, or reprimand of a judge. The governor, with consent of the governor's council, may remove judges upon the joint address of both houses of the general court. The governor, with consent of the governor's council, may also retire judges because of advanced age or mental or physical disability. Judges may be impeached by the house of representatives and convicted by the senate."[3]


Fiscal Year Filings Dispositions
2012 231 200
2011 264 194
2010 231 231
2009 285 205
2008 214 222


Notable decisions

Court says photos secretly taken up a woman's skirt are legal

March 5, 2014
The Massachusetts Supreme Court handed down a surprising ruling on March 5, 2014 that sent prosecutors on a mission to change a state law. The court ruled that the practice of secretly taking a photo or video up a person's clothing, which is known as "upskirting", is perfectly legal under state law.

The defendant in the case was Michael Robertson, who was arrested in 2010 for using his cell phone to take pictures and video up the skirts or dresses of female passengers on the public trolley. After the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) received multiple complaints about him, they caught him in the act by sending an undercover female officer onto the trolley. He was charged with two counts of attempting to secretly photograph a person in a state of partial nudity.

The supreme court's decision was based on the fact that a woman wearing a skirt or dress is not considered to be partially nude. Therefore, the court ruled in favor of Robertson and granted his request to dismiss the case. The ruling stated:

This text is quoted verbatim from the original source. Any inconsistencies are attributed to the original source.

In sum, we interpret the phrase, 'a person who is ... partially nude' in the same way that the defendant does, namely, to mean a person who is partially clothed but who has one or more of the private parts of body exposed in plain view at the time that the putative defendant secretly photographs her.[5]

The court further explained that the state law "does not apply to photographing (or videotaping or electronically surveilling) persons who are fully clothed."[5]

Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel Conley responded to the ruling by saying, "Every person, male or female, has a right to privacy beneath his or her own clothing...If the statute as written doesn't protect that privacy, then I'm urging the Legislature to act rapidly and adjust it so it does."[5]

Legislative action:

One day after the court's ruling, the Massachusetts State Legislature approved a bill to close the loophole allowing such "upskirt" photographs. The new legislation, which Gov. Patrick agreed to sign into law, changes the wording of the old law to refer to any unsolicited photographs or videos of "sexual or other intimate parts" and strikes the requirement that the victim be "partially nude." The punishment for such acts is a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of two-and-a-half years in jail and a $5,000 fine.[6][7]

Historical decisions

  • 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..."[8] 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.


Financial disclosure

See also: Center for Public Integrity Study on State Supreme Court Disclosure Requirements

In December 2013, the Center for Public Integrity released a study on disclosure requirements for state supreme court judges. Analysts from the Center reviewed the rules governing financial disclosure in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia, as well as personal financial disclosures for the past three years. The study found that 42 states and Washington D.C. received failing grades. Massachusetts earned a grade of D in the study. No state received a grade higher than "C". Furthermore, due in part to these lax disclosure standards, the study found 35 instances of questionable gifts, investments overlapping with caseloads and similar potential ethical quandaries. The study also noted 14 cases in which justices participated although they or their spouses held stock in the company involved in the litigation.[9]

History of the court

The John Adams courthouse in Boston, Massachusetts
Historic Massachusetts State House (circa 1900), historic home of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court

Notable firsts

  • The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has the distinction of being the oldest continuously functioning appellate court in the Western Hemisphere.

Chief justices

# Chief Justice Took office Left office
1 William Cushing 1782 1789
2 Nathaniel Peaslee Sargeant 1790 1791
3 Francis Dana 1791 1806
4 Theophilus Parsons 1806 1813
5 Samuel Sewall 1814 1814
6 Isaac Parker August 24, 1814 July 25, 1830
7 Lemuel Shaw August 30, 1830 August 21, 1860
8 George Tyler Bigelow September 7, 1860 December 31, 1867
9 Reuben Atwater Chapman February 7, 1868 June 28, 1873
10 Horace Gray September 5, 1873 January 9, 1882
11 Marcus Morton January 16, 1882 August 27, 1890
12 Walbridge A. Field September 4, 1890 July 15, 1899
13 Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. August 2, 1899 December 8, 1902
14 Marcus Perrin Knowlton December 17, 1902 September 7, 1911
15 Arthur Prentice Rugg September 20, 1911 June 12, 1938
16 Fred Tarbell Field June 30, 1938 July 24, 1947
17 Stanley Elroy Qua August 6, 1947 September 6, 1956
18 Raymond Sanger Wilkins September 13, 1956 September 1, 1970
19 G. Joseph Tauro 1970 1976
20 Edward F. Hennessey 1976 April 19, 1989
21 Paul J. Liacos June 20, 1989 September 30, 1996
22 Herbert P. Wilkins October 1, 1996 August 31, 1999
23 Margaret Marshall October 14, 1999 2010
24 Roderick Ireland 2010 Incumbent
(faces mandatory retirement on September 1, 2014)

See also

External links


Portions of this article have been taken from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Copyright Notice can be found here.

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