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Demystifying the Massachusetts Appellate Process

Often attorneys and clients think of the appeals process as an abyss - a long, uncertain process where they wait many months (or years) for a final resolution of their legal case.  Although a typical trip to the Massachusetts Appeals Court is by no means quick, the process is ordinarily not too complicated.

After a case is docketed in the Massachusetts Appeals Court and the parties file their briefs, the court reviews the legal issues contained in the briefs.  Depending on the complexity and merits of the legal issues, the court assigns the case to either the "A" or "B" track.  

The "A" track is the typical appellate track - the case is assigned to a panel of three judges and scheduled for oral argument.  If you are the party filing the appeal (the "Appellant"), you prefer the "A" track because not only does it give you the opportunity to orally explain the legally correct result to the judges, but this "A" assignment shows that the court thinks that your legal issues are strong enough to warrant an oral argument.  

On the other hand, the "B" track is the non-argument appellate track - the case is assigned to a panel of three judges who decide the case entirely on the written briefs.  If you are the party defending the lower court decision (the "Appellee"), you may well prefer the "B" track.   That is because the "B" track designation often signals that the court has determined that your opposition's legal issues lack merit and can be easily disposed of without oral argument.

During my two years of clerking for a judge on this court, I saw only two cases change from the "B" track to the "A" track after the cases were assigned to a panel of judges.  Both were criminal cases.

Each month, each panel of three judges hears oral argument on six cases on one day and six cases on a second day.  Those are the "A" cases.  In addition, that same panel of three judges decides approximately twelve "B" cases without oral argument.  In total, the panel decides about twenty-four cases each month, which are approximately an equal amount of "A" cases and "B" cases.   

For the majority of cases, once the panel of judges issues a decision on the case, that decision is the "last word" on the case.  The losing party could file an application for further appellate review to the Supreme Judicial Court, but there is an incredibly slim chance - less than five percent - that the Supreme Judicial Court will accept the case.    (Statistics are available on the Supreme Judicial Court website: http://www.mass.gov/courts/sjc/sjc-case-stats.html.  For FY 2011, the Supreme Judicial Court allowed only 46 of 960 applications for further appellate review.) 

Later posts will address the timeframe of the appellate process, issues to consider when deciding whether to appeal, reasons to hire an appellate attorney, and tips for succeeding at appellate advocacy.  For now, hopefully the Massachusetts state appellate process is a bit clearer.

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