In the state of Massachusetts, one’s last appeal lies within the hands of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The current Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is found within the John Adams Courthouse. The Supreme Judicial Court functions under the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution. It is the highest appellate court in Massachusetts. The Supreme Judicial Court gets the final say in matters in Massachusetts and can only be overruled by the Supreme Court of the United States. The Court is composed of one Chief Justice and six Associate Justices. The seven Justices hear appeals of criminal and civil cases from lower courts. The Court runs from September to May but holds emergency meetings when necessary.
The first Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts was established in 1691 by Queen Mary and King William III. The colony was without a charter for five years because of a violation of the trade laws of England, but Queen Mary and William reinstated the colony authorizing a court for “judicatories and courts of record”. In November of 1691, the court issued a ruling to create a Supreme Court of Judicature and lower courts. Five judges were appointed to serve. The first cases heard were that of the Salem Witch trials. In 1761, the court heard a case that would influence centuries, regarding “Writs of Assistance”, the court found that conducting searches over any suspicion was against a person’s inalienable rights.
In 1780, the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts renamed the Superior Court of Judicature the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. The number of judges increased to seven as it remains today. The judges are appointed by a governor and approved by the Governor’s Council. Justices are in office until the mandatory retirement age of 70 or they resign. The Court is divided into many departments besides the Justices including Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for the Commonwealth, Clerk of the Supreme Judicial Court for Suffolk County, Reporter of Decisions, Law Clerks, Public Information Office, and The Division of Archives and Records Preservation.
Among the many famous cases that took place in the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts is the earliest recorded case against school segregation. Roberts v. City of Boston took place in 1849. The case was a community action to desegregate schools where the lead plaintiff was Benjamin Roberts. Roberts five-year-old daughter, Sarah, had to walk past five schools to get to the segregated Smith School. The court ruled that special schools were created for colored students, so the school closest to Sarah did not have to allow her to attend. The reason was that Boston did not have territory school districts and white students often did not attend the closest school either. This case was a prelude to the famous “separate but equal” established in Plessy v. Ferguson.
Many of Massachusetts case rulings were surprising at the time they were made. Other landmark cases include Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Jennison (1783), Commonwealth v. Hunt (1842), Goodridge v. Department of Public Health (2003). Commonwealth v. Nathaniel Johnson declared slavery was unconstitutional in Massachusetts allowing slaves to sue for freedom. Commonwealth v. Hunt stated trade unions were not illegal if they remained non-violent organizations. Goodridge v. Department of Public Health was one of the first decisions allowing same-sex marriages. The lifelong appointment of the judges allows them to make decisions like those stated above upholding their Constitution without fear.