How exactly does the law work with regards to the powers and privileges of juries. For example, in Massachusetts the law (General Laws Part III Title I Chapter 214) reads:

The supreme judicial court, upon request of a party to a civil action in which equitable relief is sought, may frame issues of fact to be tried by a jury and order the same to be tried in that court or in the superior court in the county in which such cause is pending, or upon the request of all parties in any other county.

Which gives the impression that trial is by jury and the jury has the full power over the trial. However, if we read General Laws Part III Title I Chapter 218 19B, we find something different, at least for district courts:

(c) The justice presiding over a jury of 6 session shall have and exercise all powers and duties which a justice sitting in the superior court department has and may exercise in the trial and disposition of civil cases including the power to report questions of law to the appeals court. Trials by juries of 6 shall proceed in accordance with the law applicable to trials by jury in the superior court;...

So, now all of a sudden, we have a "justice" that has some kind of power, but that power is undefined except that is the "same" as the power of a superior court justice. If we then refer to the conduct of the superior court, it reads ( General Laws Part III Title I Chapter 212 Section 2):

The court shall be held by one of the justices, and when so held shall have and exercise all the power and jurisdiction committed to said court. The chief justice shall make such assignments for the attendance of a justice at the several times and places appointed for holding the court as will be most convenient and as will insure the prompt performance of its duties.

So, here it says the court is held by the justice, not by the jury. If we then refer to the "powers" of the Superior Court, it reads in part as follows ( General Laws Part III Title I Chapter 213 Section 3: Rules; power to make and promulgate):

The courts shall, respectively, make and promulgate uniform codes of rules, consistent with law, for ...

Second, Prescribing the terms upon which amendments will be allowed or unnecessary counts and statements stricken from the record; discouraging negligence and deceit; preventing delay; securing parties from being misled; placing the party not in fault as nearly as possible in the condition in which he would have been if no mistake had been made; distinguishing between form and substance; and substituting fixed and certain requirements for the discretion of the court.

Third, Conducting trials.

Fourth, Presenting distinctly the questions to be tried by the jury.

Fifth, Giving a party such notice of the evidence which is intended to be offered by the adverse party as will prevent surprise and enable him to prepare for trial.

Sixth, Prescribing such forms of verdicts as will place upon record the finding of the jury.

So, by this Superior Court apparently can boss around the jury however it likes, so long as it is according to "rules" (not laws) which it must "promulgate".

So, my question is, if we are not dealing in law anymore but in "rules" concocted by the Superior Court:

(a) where are these "rules"? (at least in the case of Massachusetts)

(b) since the original jurisdiction seems to be vested in a "justice" not a jury, should I consider the statements concerning "trial by jury" to be just mistatements and that the jury does not have original jurisdiction in Massachusetts in any court, but that it is always the judge that has original jurisdiction?

  • 1
    You seem to be perplexed by something that is entirely normal: trials are always run by a judge (or justice, etc.). The jury is responsible for deciding matters of fact, but the judge rules on matters of law, instructs the jury, decides what evidence the jury can have access to, and controls every other aspect of the trial. In no sense does a jury have power over a trial beyond determining the verdict. The court has jurisdiction, not the judge or the jury. Have I misunderstood your question?
    – phoog
    Commented Sep 29, 2017 at 2:59

1 Answer 1


The statutes you are referring to involve a very unusual set of circumstances which probably almost never actually happen.

The material you cite involves cases in which a lawsuit is filed directly in the court of last resort in Massachusetts which is the state analog to the U.S. Supreme Court for the state court system, because it is part of that court's extraordinary original jurisdiction as opposed to its usual appellate jurisdiction. For example, it is probably applicable in cases of attorney discipline for misconduct.

What it basically says is that the chief justice of the highest court in Massachusetts, when it has a case in its original jurisdiction in which a jury trial is appropriate, can designate one of that court's judges (a "justice" is simply a judge who serves on the state's highest court) to serve as a trial judge in the case within the original jurisdiction of the highest court, in more or less the same manner as an ordinary trial court judge would in a civil jury trial.

The only difference between an ordinary civil jury trial in a trial court, and a civil jury trial conducted in a case where the highest court has jurisdiction, is that the justice presiding over the jury in the original jurisdiction case can refer any legal issues that come up immediately to the entire panel of the highest court in the state rather than making those decisions personally subject to judicial review by an appellate court.

The rules in question are the ordinary rules of civil procedure and evidence governing matters such as pre-trial dispositive motions, discovery, "half-time" motions to dismiss or for directed verdicts, post-trial motion rules, etc.

In a nutshell, those rules defer the final verdict to the jury except in cases in which "no reasonable jury" could rule correctly in any other manner if it is correctly applying the law to the undisputed facts (pre-trial) or the facts presented so far at trial (during or after trial).

There are also probably some "local rules" in each court addressing issues such as the mailing address and operating hours of the court, the way that hearing dates are scheduled, the process by which motions are considered, the duty if any of parties to confer with each other or engaged in ADR, mandatory pre-trial disclosure obligations, civil cover sheets for new cases, standard deadlines to finish tasks that don't have deadlines in the general application civil rules, preferred forms for certain kinds of motions and orders such as entries of appearance, etc.

The jury's role is always the same - show up, be selected and sworn in, listen to the opening and closing arguments and the evidence that the judge admits under the rules of evidence, listen to the jury instructions from the judge, deliberate and render a verdict based upon that deliberation in a manner set forth on a jury verdict form that the jury is provided with by the judge, they do this for sub-minimum wage jury fees, a few free meals, and maybe a parking or transit voucher.

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