The John Adams Courthouse in Boston, where the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court deliberates.


Hope Springs Eternal (for Litigants): The SJC Docket for April

April 4, 2017

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, the highest court in the Commonwealth, is scheduled to hold oral arguments in appellate cases this week, as it does at the beginning of each month from September through May. The Court handed down several important opinions in March, perhaps the most notable of which involves a lawsuit against the Massachusetts Gaming Commission. Three years ago, the Commission awarded a casino license to Wynn Resorts. Several parties were displeased with this outcome and sought recourse through litigation.

Two key issues surfaced in the case before the SJC. First, can applicants who are denied casino licenses ever sue the Gaming Commission? It would appear as if the answer is “no” based on a 2011 state law that bars aggrieved applicants from suing the Commission. Undaunted, Mohegan Sun – which vied for the casino license but fell short – nevertheless sued the commission, claiming the process was arbitrary and capricious. The Commission sought to dismiss the suit, but the SJC permitted certain aspects of the case to move forward.

Second, some Revere residents tried to join the lawsuit on the grounds the licensing process violated the state “open-meeting” law. Specifically, the residents cited evidence the commission may have convened privately on two occasions in 2013 and 2014. The SJC ruled that the residents could have their allegations heard as well, remanding the case to the lower court.

To be sure, the SJC gave little indication about its view on the merits of the case. The strength (or weakness) of the plaintiffs’ claims should emerge at trial. Rather, the SJC opinion represents a triumph for transparency by allowing plaintiffs to have their claims aired in court when there are viable concerns about the legitimacy of the license granting process and safeguarding our state open-meeting law. 

As for the coming month, there are 18 oral arguments on the calendar, a couple of which seem especially interesting. In Commonwealth v. Moffat, a prisoner filed a motion to conduct post-conviction DNA testing on four cigarette butts at the crime scene in the hope those tests might identify an alternative perpetrator. The defendant acknowledges that he was with a group of men at the scene, but suggests these other men killed the victim. The trial court denied Moffat’s motion. Massachusetts only passed its DNA statute in 2012, making it the 49th state in the nation to do so. This case represents a chance for SJC to interpret the scope of the post-conviction testing statute and signal the extent to which it should be construed broadly to permit prisoner access to such tests.

Next, a case slated for argument on Wednesday – Commonwealth v. Mauricio – concerns whether and under what circumstances law enforcement may conduct a warrantless search of a suspect’s digital camera after making a lawful arrest of that person. In that case, the police received to a call about a suspicious person in Taunton. The responding officer saw a man rushing out of a residence, then stopped and frisked him. The officer retrieved drugs from the suspect and, among other things, a digital camera. Back at the station, the police looked at the camera and found photos of firearms that matched those recently reported as stolen during a different housebreak. The judge admitted those photos into evidence and Mauricio was convicted of receiving stolen property and firearms possession.  

Should the trial court have let those photos into evidence? Stay tuned. The Court typically issues opinions within 130 days of oral argument.

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