Publication of the Reports
In 1803, a statute (St. 1803, c. 133, § 1) provided for the office of Reporter of Decisions. The first Reporter was not appointed until 1804. The Preface to the First Edition of Volume 1 of the Massachusetts Reports describes duties of the Reporter that required travel with the Justices from county to county, the court "ordinarily having but one week for holding a term in each county." Much time was spent seeking materials that would support an accurate reporting of the cases being heard.
Today, slip opinions and advance sheets are published in printed and electronic formats. While many of the editorial and writing skills required to report the court's opinions are as important today as they were in 1804, the process of disseminating the court's opinions has changed dramatically.
The Reporter's office provides editorial support for the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) and the Appeals Court and administers a printing contract for the publication of the advance sheets and permanent bound volumes of the official reports of the two courts. The Reporter's statutory duties are outlined in G. L. c. 221, §§ 63-68. The Reporter's office edits approximately 450 opinions each year.
The staff of the Reporter's office works with the Justices, their law clerks, and the judicial secretaries to produce the slip opinions. A paralegal editor checks all facts stated in a draft opinion against the record appendix or transcripts, checks citations and further appellate history, conforms the opinion to the conventions of the official style manual, and checks grammar and syntax.
After the Justices approve a final draft opinion, an editorial assistant gathers briefs and records appendices, verifies the panel hearing the case, and checks the county of origin and argument date.
The Reporter, Deputy Reporter, or Assistant Reporter reads each opinion, focusing on style and substance. Any suggestions of a substantive nature are brought to the attention of the authoring Justice. The Reporter, Deputy, Reporter, or Assistant Reporter also assigns "catchwords" to identify the various issues discussed, drafts a procedural history that outlines how the case has come to the appellate court, and verifies counsel on appeal who argued before the court.
An important responsibility of the Reporter is to prepare headnotes, which are synopses of the issues decided in a case. Headnotes do not appear in the slip opinions, but do appear in the advance sheets and bound volumes. The fifteenth Reporter of Decisions, Grant M. Palmer, Jr., expressed these thoughts about headnoting opinions in the Massachusetts Reports (Memorandum to SJC Staff, 1971):
"Brevity and conciseness are a prime consideration. When the relevant facts are many and perhaps complicated, e.g., in a negligence case, it is often possible to summarize the facts fairly briefly in such a way as to give the reader a clear idea of the situation involved. However, it must be recognized that there are certain kinds of cases where a somewhat lengthy headnote cannot be avoided if the point is to be made clear, e.g., where the decision turns on the meaning of particular language of a provision of a will or contract -- often long. With rare exceptions, each headnote is one sentence; this is conducive to brevity.
"Ordinarily, each headnote will cover only one point of law, and will state only the facts relevant to that point. This kind of headnote is believed to be the most helpful to the reader, and has been used for many years. An exception to this rule may be made where the facts, or the terms of a statute, or other factors are relevant to two or more points of law; in such a situation it may be better, in order to avoid repetition, to write one headnote, inserting a bracket for the opinion page number or numbers after each point.
"Certain well settled rules of law which are often stated in passing in opinions are ordinarily not headnoted as such, although of course they may be involved in the headnotes which are written.
"'Signboard' headnotes (so called by former Reporter E.V. Grabill) . . . are used in instances where there is a fairly extended discussion or statement of a point of law or review of authorities pertaining thereto. The headnote to cover this material would be a short one reading thus: 'Discussion [or Statement] of [or Review of authorities pertaining to]" the legal point in question. Usually, of course, the point would also be involved in another headnote dealing with the pertinent facts and procedure.
"In a majority of instances, probably, a dissent or concurrence is indicated at the end of a headnote merely by the name or names of the judge or judges followed by the word 'dissenting' or 'concurring,' both in regular and advisory opinions. As will appear from these references, the dissent or concurrence is frequently to only one or some of the points in the case; in such instances the headnote writer must be careful to fit the dissent or concurrence to the right headnote or headnotes -- not always an easy decision. Not infrequently, more than an indication that a judge or judges dissented or concurred is advisable for the sake of clarity.
"[M]uch must be left to the discretion of the headnote writer, bearing in mind that the main purpose of headnotes is not to relieve the reader of the necessity of reading the opinion, but to get across to [the reader] quickly and clearly the salient points of the opinion so that [the reader] can then examine it for those in which [the reader] is interested."
Dissemination of opinions
Slip opinions are released to the public through this Web site shortly after 10 A.M. each day.
The advance sheet service provided by the Reporter's office is the most timely printed advance sheet service in the United States. The publishing week begins on Thursday and ends on Wednesday. All cases released through Wednesday of a given week are mailed to the subscribers by the printing contractor in advance sheet form on the following Friday.
The preparation of the decisions to be published in advance sheet form, along with periodic tables of cases and indices, is automated. Computer macros strip out all word processing codes and insert Standardized General Mark-up Language (SGML) tags that are read by the printing contractor's computer. After the printing contractor composes the pages for the advance sheets, the Reporter's staff proofreads the pages and sends corrections to the printer.
All advance sheet pages are carefully proofread again before a bound volume is produced. Each bound volume incorporates all changes since the release of the advance sheet pages. The printer mails bound volumes to the subscribers and maintains an inventory of past bound volumes.
The Reporter's office continues its efforts to standardize its editing conventions and office practices. The editorial Style Manual, which has been in use for several years, is continually evaluated and updated and may be downloaded from this Web site.
The manual includes general rules of SJC writing style, tables of abbreviations, guidelines for case citation, and rules of capitalization and punctuation followed in preparing the official reports. There are sections explaining the method of forming case captions and party designations. Examples of common statements of dispository language, referred to as "snappers," are provided. Also, a number of standards of review used by the court are set out.