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Civil Appeals in the Massachusetts Courts

An appeal, whether civil or criminal, is a proceeding to determine whether the trial was fair and/or whether the evidence was legally sufficient to support the verdict. It is not a trial and is not like a trial. The parties cannot introduce new evidence on appeal. Rather, they are limited to the record that was before the trial court.

Where a matter is heard in the Superior Court, most appeals go to the Massachusetts Appeals Court. There, a panel of three justices will review the briefs and in most instances will hear oral argument. The panel will render a written decision anywhere from a few weeks to a few months after oral argument or shortly a case is submitted where the court elects not to hear oral argument. There are a few types of cases that go straight to the Supreme Judicial Court by statute where they are heard by a panel of four to seven justices. The Supreme Judicial Court can also elect to pull a case up from the Appeals Court on its own motion, upon an application for direct appellate review prior to being heard in the Appeals Court, or upon an application for further appellate review following a decision by the Appeals Court.

Where a matter is heard in the District Court, most civil appeals must first go to the Appellate Division of the District Court, where it will be heard and decided by a panel of three District Court judges sitting as an appellate panel. Following a decision in the Appellate Division, the case can then be appealed to the Appeals Court (unless the case has been sent back to the District Court for further proceedings, in which case it would have to go to the Appellate Division for a second time before it can go up to the Appeals Court). Note that the Appellate Division has its own set of rules. Although many of those rules are similar to the Rules of Appellate Procedure, there are some key differences, including a shorter time period for filing a notice of appeal and some differences in the contents of that notice.

Whichever court hears the case, the purpose of an appeal is typically to ask for a new trial, and sometimes, to ask the appellate court to set aside the judgment from the trial court and dismiss the complaint. Sometimes, the court will give some other form of relief. For example, the appellate court may remand the case to the trial court for findings on a point that may not be clear from the record.

In a criminal appeal, once the notice of appeal has been filed, the trial court generally handles the tasks necessary to assemble and transmit the record to the Appeals Court. In a civil case, the appealing party must perform those tasks.

A civil appeal differs from a criminal appeal in that any issue sought to be raised must have been fully preserved by objection and/or motion. Thus, even if the trial court committed the most egregious error, that issue will be deemed to be waived and cannot be addressed on appeal unless trial counsel identified the error at trial and raised an appropriate objection.

A party who loses in the Appeals Court has the option of applying to the Supreme Judicial Court for further appellate review. That party files an application (which is very similar to the original brief) explaining why the Appeals Court decided the case incorrectly. If three of the seven Supreme Judicial Court justices agree to hear the case, additional copies of the original brief are filed, and the case is argued before a four or seven judge panel of that court. Again, the decision usually takes from one to four months. If fewer than three justices wish to hear the case, the application is denied with no explanation from the court. Rulings on applications for further appellate review generally take from a few weeks to a couple of months.

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