The following step-by-step guide can be used to request access to secret show cause hearings in Massachusetts if requesting pro se (without legal representation). Many thanks to journalist Anastasia Lennon of the New Bedford Light for providing this guidance which is based on her experience requesting access to two show cause hearings in Southeastern Massachusetts district courts. Please note that this is intended as general guidance and should not be considered legal advice.
Recommended Reading: The Massachusetts District Court Department’s standards on the complaint procedure, which is a nearly 80-page document that describes in detail the purpose and process of clerk-magistrate hearings, as well as the rules regarding public access. Reporters can use the information provided in the standards to inform their future requests to access these closed-door hearings.
Step 1: Submit in writing a request or motion to access the hearing to the clerk-magistrate in the court presiding over the hearing.
For example, if the show cause hearing is scheduled to take place in New Bedford District Court, one would file the request or motion to access the hearing with New Bedford District Court’s clerk-magistrate.
Submit the request in writing early and with ample time before the scheduled hearing, if possible, so that there is time to appeal if the clerk-magistrate denies the request. Magistrates could say they are waiting until the morning of the hearing to make the decision, or they could provide a response in advance.
Court standards state that magistrates are encouraged to provide a written explanation on their decision regarding a request for public access. Cite this as well as other district court standards in your request to support your motion for access.
During this step, reporters as a courtesy can notify the involved parties (ie. the complainant and the accused). It is possible either or both parties will take no issue with opening the hearing to the public.
Here’s an example of a motion to access a clerk-magistrate hearing.
Step 2: Appeal the clerk-magistrate’s denial in district court.
While there’s some disagreement within the courts about whether this step is necessary, SJC officials say that the appeals process starts with the district court.
So if, for example, the New Bedford District Court clerk-magistrate denies the request, appeal that denial with the New Bedford District Court judge. But know that it’s possible the judge will communicate that he or she has no authority to override the clerk-magistrate and that the appeal will need to be filed directly with the SJC.
Here’s an example of an appeal to a district court judge.
Step 3: Appeal the clerk-magistrate’s denial by filing a petition with a single justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and, if necessary, also file a motion for an emergency stay of the hearing pending the SJC’s ruling on the petition.
For this step, all parties to the hearing must be notified. The following documents must be submitted:
2. Proof of service to the parties involved (i.e. accused, complainant, clerk magistrate). This is documentation that you notified all parties that you have appealed to the SJC to open the hearing and possibly to stay the proceeding. Send them all materials you are sending to the SJC.
3. Any exhibits that may support your petitions (i.e. police reports, news articles that illustrate the alleged criminal act in question by the accused has received coverage, thereby possibly diminishing the privacy interest in keeping the hearing closed).
4. Petition pursuant to M.G.L. ch. 211 § 3 for an emergency stay of the hearing (optional).
5. Attach all the documents as PDFs and email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Step 4: Pay $315 filing fee to the state
Check can be mailed to:
Supreme Judicial Court for the County of Suffolk
John Adams Courthouse
One Pemberton Square, Suite 1-300
Boston, MA 02108