What do Supreme Judicial Court justices do? Justice Spina explains


PITTSFIELD >> What is it like to sit on the state's highest court?

Pittsfield's Francis X. Spina, one of 98 justices to have served since 1800, has learned the job from the inside out, serving as a justice of the Supreme Judicial Court since 1999.

"Well, we begin in September and try to finish our work by July," Spina said. "You can relax a little in August, but by the middle of the month, they send you the briefs on cases that are going to be argued after Labor Day, so it starts again."

"August is basically our vacation month, but it's not work-free," he said with a smile.

The justice is not complaining; he clearly sounded during an interview like someone who enjoys working in the legal system and has always been fascinated by the law and the issues it raises and tries to resolve. He said that has been true at each stage of his long career, which he will close this month by retiring from the court.

At the Supreme Judicial Court level, Spina said the majority of the cases taken on during each annual session involve the most important precedents or the most pressing social, political or constitutional issues.

While some 1,250,000 cases are filed in a year in the Massachusetts court system, only about 225 typically receive an opinion or ruling at the Supreme Judicial Court level, and about 1,800 are dealt with the Appeals Court level.

"Most, basically, live with the decisions they are given" in Superior, District, Probate, Juvenile or other courts in the system, Spina said.

The high court has some leeway in deciding which cases to take up in a session, he said, but some are automatically referred to the Supreme Judicial Court — including all first-degree murder cases and actions involving professional license disciplinary decisions and reprimands concerning attorneys issued by the state Board of Bar Overseers.

Spina has served on the court's Hearing List Committee, deciding (along with input from staff attorneys) which cases will be heard, as well as on other committees and as a liaison to other court departments, such as juvenile or housing courts.

About 164 cases per annual session are assigned by the chief justice for full written opinions.

"It's sort of like piece work," Spina said. "Everybody gets a packet with 24 cases a year ... The chief justice doles them out."

Decision process

The full court sits on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays during the term, from September through May.

"Typically, we hear five cases a day, sometimes six, sometimes four," Spina said.

In addition to the written records submitted in a case before the Supreme Judicial Court, attorneys in most cases will each have 15 minutes to offer oral arguments, Spina said, except in murder cases, when attorneys are allowed 20 minutes apiece.

Approximately 18 to 19 cases requiring full written opinions are heard per month, along with two or three others the justices call "non-complex" cases. Those typically involved a straight ruling, up or down, usually in cases where the basic facts are not being disputed.

The court has internal time standards, Spina said, including that all cases, except first-degree murder cases, must be heard within one year.

"I think we are pretty successful on that score," he said. "We are at about 90 to 95 percent," excluding murder cases.

After arguments in a case are heard, he said the justices try to reach a consensus on a ruling. The chief justice then assigns someone to write the opinion, he said, often choosing a justice he believes "can probably best express all of the views."

Toward the end of each month, the justices meet to review the draft opinions currently being written, Spina said. A majority of opinions are agreed upon by the court after one meeting, he said, while more than 90 percent approach a consensus after two of the monthly meetings.

"But there always is that one case a year that will go for three or four months," he said.

The justices also have the option of writing a minority dissenting opinion, he said, and sometimes, after a meeting or two, that opinion gains adherents and becomes the majority view. Then, another justice is asked to write the court's majority opinion.

Single justice duty

Each justice also acts as a single justice for a month at a time on a rotating basis, Spina said. Cases coming before a single justice could range from appeals of Board of Bar Overseer decisions to questions of the admissibility of evidence in an ongoing trial.

"We have special power of superintendency," he said, and as many as 8 to 10 percent of single justice decisions involve "interlocutory" rulings, which means the lower court trial has yet to be completed.

Appeals of lower court decisions on admissibility of evidence questions or double jeopardy issues are among that type of case. Single justice decisions can also be appealed further to the full Supreme Judicial Court.

Finally, all of the opinions of the Supreme Judicial Court, and many of the Appeals Court decisions each year, are published in volumes of hundreds of pages and online, Spina said. They are called the Massachusetts Report and the Appeals Court Reporter.

On the Supreme Judicial Court, Spina also was active on a number of court committees in addition to the Hearing List Committee. He served on the Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Services from 2000 through 2011. He also is a member of the court's Case Management Committee, Information Technology Committee, Personnel Committee and Library Committee.

Spina has been the court's liaison to the Board of Bar Overseers since 2009, and he participated in the development of time standards for bar discipline matters, as well as other administrative matters.

Contact Jim Therrien at 413-496-6247.


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