This guide is designed to highlight selected resources for doing legal research in Massachusetts. It is designed primarily for Harvard Law School students, staff and faculty. At present, it focuses on Massachusetts state materials and not materials related to the federal courts in Massachusetts.
Much of our Massachusetts collection is in the south end of the 4th floor Reading Room, but some is stored offsite in the Harvard Depository, in Reference, in Special Collections, on microfilm/microfiche or shelved elsewhere. Increasingly, we are acquiring more of our Massachusetts materials in electronic format. This guide is intended as a starting place to highlight some of the more popular resources we have. Check Hollis for more materials.
An amazing resource for Massachusetts legal information is the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries. They are also open to members of the public and are happy to help them with research questions.
Adapted in part from research guide written by Stephanie Burke Farne, former Harvard Law School Library Reference Librarian.
Mass. = Massachusetts Reports (for Supreme Judicial Court Decisions or "SJC")
Mass. App. Ct. = for Massachusetts Appeals Court Reports
N.E. or N.E.2d = Northeastern Reporter or Northeastern Reporter 2d. (Supreme Judicial Court and Mass. Appeals Court Decisions)
Mass. App. Div. = Reports of Massachusetts Appellate Division
See Table 1 of the Bluebook and SJC Style Manual for additional information about case citations.
Note: For SJC cases from 1822-1867, the volumes of official reports were named for the repoter (e.g. Pick. for Pickering). Section 2.02 SJC Style Manual provides guidance for using citations with these reporter names and also provides a table that converts Mass. Reports citations to these nominative reporter citations in Appendix 3.
Massachusetts Appeals Court cases are officially published in the Massachusetts Appeals Court reports by the Office of the Reporter for Judicial Decisions and in the Northeastern Reporter.
The court also issues "unpublished" orders under Rule 1:28 (known as "Rule 1:28 orders"). A court decision and rule change has made it possible to cite them in some circumstances. The rule change: "If, in a brief or other filing, a party cites to an order issued under this rule, the party shall cite the case title, a citation to the Appeals Court Reports where issuance of the order is noted, and a notation that the order was issued pursuant to this rule; in addition, a party citing such an order shall include the full text of the order as an addendum to the brief or other filing. No such order issued before February 26, 2008, may be cited."
The Massachusetts legislature has one session per year. Laws that are enacted are published chronologically in the Massachusetts Acts and Resolves (session laws). They are then arranged by subject in the general laws (code). See our Legislative History section for information about bills (laws that are not yet enacted).
1) Identify session law reference. Consult the "historical notes" section of an annotated version of the Massachusetts General Laws for the particular statute you are researching.
2) Use the session law reference to identify bill number with one of the following:
3) The Legislative Package
Once you have a bill number and year, you can look for the "legislative package." This package contains the original petition filed with the Senate or House clerk, which is a simple form, along with the bill itself, including the text. In some rare cases, a statement of intent may be filed with the bill, printed at the top of the bill. All petitioner names appear on the bill, as well as handwritten changes made by committees that reviewed the bill. The State Archives at Columbia Point maintain the documents comprising the legislative package for each bill introduced in the General Court. For very recent bills, check the General Court's online information or contact the House or Senate clerk.
If the Governor has introduced a bill, a Governor's message will be filed with the House clerk and given a House bill number. Along with the proposed bill will be a "transmittal letter," which details the need for the bill. This is an extremely important document for determining intent of legislation, and is part of the legislative package. Bills as proposed and filing letters of the current administration may be found on the governor's website. Another source to examine when the Governor has proposed legislation is the annual message of the Governor, a program in accordance with which the governor may initiate bills throughout the legislative sessions, may be detailed. The annual message of the Governor is printed as Senate Bill 1 in the first year of a legislative session. The bill number varies in the second session.
Administrative agencies may file proposed legislation. The agencies' recommendations come with bill drafts, and are printed as the first series of bills within a year.
Special commissions may propose legislation as an appendix to a mandated report. Special Commission Reports may have House or Senate bill numbers. There is an index to Special Commission Reports, Index of Special Reports Authorized by the General Court (1900-1988) and Index to Special Reports (1988-March 1994). The New England Law Boston Library has a selection of these reports on its website. Also, check HOLLIS to see which Special Commission Reports are available at Harvard libraries (i.e., Find KW "Massachusetts Special Commission Report").
The indexes in each volume of the Journal of the House and the Journal of the Senate (see below) provide important information about the bill history which may lead to other material relevant to the bill's intent, including the committee assignment of the bill, the date of public hearings, and the dates of debate on the chamber floor. If the bill is from the current session, a bill history may be available online.
Bills introduced into the House or Senate are referred to committees whose topics most closely align with that of the bill. Public hearings must be held on every bill referred to a committee. Videotapes of selected hearings produced by WGBH, the local PBS station, under contract with the General Court, are official sources for those hearings. These videotapes are catalogued and searchable at the State Library. Selective committee hearings from 2007 on appear on the legislative website. The State House News Service is an unofficial print and electronic source of selected hearings. Written testimony submitted to the committee for hearings are included in bill folders, which may or may not be deposited by the committee in the State Archives. The committee should be contacted directly to determine if that is its practice.
If the bill is favorably reported out to the first committee, it received its "first reading" and goes to any other committee it may have to be sent on to. If it survives, it receives a "second reading", which means that there is the opportunity for debate on the floor of the chambers. This is an important step for researchers in determining the intent of the bill. The State Library has the official audiotape and videotape records of the proceedings of the House, which includes these floor debates, beginning in November 1984. Senate proceedings are available from 1994. The unofficial State House News Service has transcribed debates since 1972. However, do not be surprised if the "debate" is extremely brief.
After the "second reading" procedural step, members of the chamber are asked if the bill should go to the Committee on Third Readings (House or Senate). If the bill is sent to the Committee, it may undergo technical changes, change in citation form or even review for Constitutional issues. The bill is then sent back to the chamber floor where it may be debated again. If amendments are made, the bill will be sent back to the Committee on Third Readings (House or Senate) for re-examination. If the bill "passed to be engrossed," it is sent on to the other chamber to undergo the same process all over again.
If both chambers of the legislature enact the bill, it is sent along to the Governor's Office for approval. The Governor's staff prepares a summary analysis of the bill, including its impact if passed. These papers constitute the Governor's Legislative Files. During the Governor's term of office, these may be obtained from the Governor's Office. The papers of previous administrations may be obtained from the State Archives. These papers do not provide evidence of legislative intent because they issue from the executive office. If the Governor returns the bill with amendment, it takes the form of a "Governor's Message" and becomes a bill itself. A transmittal letter will accompany the amendment, which does provide evidence of legislative intent.
Another set of sources issuing from the Governor's office which may provide direct or indirect evidence of the intent of legislation are Governor's press releases from around the date of the signing of the bill by the Governor. These are available at the State Library, dating from 1958. Recent releases appear on the the government website.
Other less formal means of gleaning information relevant to legislative intent include contacting the original petitioners for the bill, whether sponsoring legislators or members of special organizations. The names of the original petitioners appear on the original petition in the legislative package. Also, do not forget to examine newspapers for clues about the social conditions out of which the idea for the legislation sprang.
Final regulations published in the Massachusetts Register are removed and interfiled into our Code of Massachusetts Regulations.
The Massachusetts Register includes:
Note that the Code of Massachusetts Regulations did not start until 1976.
There is no official subject index to the CMR published by the Secretary of State, but there are Weil's Index to the Code of Massachusetts Regulations and the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries' index.
Regulations in the CMR may be updated by "emergency regulations" published in the Massachusetts Register.
Some agencies post their decisions on their websites, but usually only back to 2000's .
Some agencies post their decisions on their websites, but usually selectively and only back to the 2000's.
Selected historical codes from Massachusetts cities/towns may be found in the following projects:
Not all Massachusetts Rules of Court are available online in their entirety.
One of this most popular secondary sources in Massachusetts, Massachusetts Practice Series is an encyclopedic series of treatises on a variety of subjects. It is available in print in the library or on Westlaw.
Massachusetts Contintuing Legal Education (MCLE) is a nonprofit that offers continuing legal education/training to lawyers. They also offer several publications from looseleafs to seminar texts, deskbooks and compendia. A selection of them is available through our Lexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg Law, as well as MCLE Onlinepass subscriptions. We also have some in print in the library (search Hollis).
Massachusetts Contintuing Legal Education (MCLE) is a nonprofit that offers continuing legal education/training to lawyers. They also offer several publications from looseleafs to seminar texts, deskbooks and compendia. A selection of them is available through MCLE One Pass which also has media of the continuing legal education programming. (Access is controlled by HLS IP address and is limited to the Harvard Law School community. Off-campus access is controlled by HLS Account username and password.), as well as our Lexis, Westlaw and Bloomberg Law subscriptions. Through the law school link, you can also register for a personal account to receive updates. We also have some MCLE materials in print in the library (search Hollis+).
The organization offers discounts on live program fees for newly admitted attorneys, pending admitees and law students. See its program calendar. We also have free MP's/broadcasts of its programming through MCLE One Pass.
Treatises and encyclopedias listed below might also contain forms. A search in Hollis for Massachusetts and forms in the subject will yield additional resources.
Massachusetts adopted the ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct in 1997. Court rules are promulgated in the Mass. Reports. (Mass.)
For additional books in our collection that contain forms, search for Massachusetts and forms in the subject fields with your search in Hollis and look at treatises on Lexis, Westlaw, Bloomberg Law and MCLE OnlinePassTM.
Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly is the leading legal newspaper for Massachusetts and is well known for its coverage of the business and practice of law in Massachusetts. Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly covers a wide range of topics of interest to the Massachusetts legal community including political and judicial developments, legislative activities, administrative actions, verdicts & settlements, and notable opinions, as well as attorney, firm and judicial profiles and legal commentary.
Call Reference & Research Services, 617-495-4516
Text Ask a Librarian, 617-702-2728
Contact Historical & Special Collections at email@example.com
Meet Consult a Librarian
Visit Us Library and Reference Hours