Appellate Electronic Filing Tips for the 2020’s
by Joseph Stanton and Julie Goldman
With the Appeals Court’s implementation of mandatory electronic filing for attorneys in September 2018 coinciding with extensive updates to the Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure in March 2019, as well as with the Supreme Judicial Court’s pilot allowing parties to file electronic briefs with limited paper copies, this is a good time to provide feedback to the Massachusetts bar about some of the changes. As part of this endeavor, we surveyed the Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court for their input. What follows is a compilation of their feedback and additional observations. Although the Justices’ responses were not unanimous, they revealed many common themes.
The Monospaced or Proportional Font Option. Rule 20(a) now permits filers to use either a monospaced font (such as Courier New) with page limits, or a proportional font (such as Times New Roman) with a word count maximum. Attorneys frequently ask: What type of font do the Justices prefer?
Justices were evenly split among those who prefer a proportional font and those who had no preference, with slightly fewer Justices preferring a monospaced font. The preferred monospaced font was, unsurprisingly, Courier New; the preferred proportional font was Times New Roman. Sticking to one of these two fonts in your submissions is a safe bet. If you decide to take advantage of Rule 20(a)’s flexibility and select a different proportional font to add some extra flair, heed one Justice’s comment that “if a practitioner wants to try something new, that’s fine, but it must be easy to read.”
A downside to using a proportional font is the extra space that it occupies when produced in 14 point or larger font as the rule requires. A brief that is more than the traditional 50 page limit, even when within the new word limit, may seem longer to the reader using a proportional font because of the larger type size and new pagination requirements. Therefore, it is important to be mindful that the Justices, as always, appreciate conciseness and brevity.
Visual Aids. One way to free up space in a brief is to compile and present information through the insertion of visual aids. Visual aids may include a photograph, image, diagram, chart, or table. For example, in the Statement of Facts section of a brief, filers might consider putting chronological information contained in the record into a timeline format; various criminal charges, convictions, and sentences could be presented in a chart; a family tree could be useful in a probate case; a factually complex property case might benefit from a visual plan or map. While the Massachusetts Rules of Appellate Procedure do not currently contain a provision explicitly allowing or disallowing visual aids, the appellate courts’ practice is to accept them and a future rule amendment is possible.
The Justices commented that such visual aids are “refreshing” and that, “if you created a chart to prepare yourself, then we could use the same chart.” They also observed that, if you do not provide it, they may spend time developing a similar chart or understanding on their own.
But care and attention must be used when preparing a visual aid. Justices remarked, “While it’s theoretically possible, I have rarely if ever seen a chart or graph used effectively[,]” visual aids are “generally no[t]” helpful or only “[i]f well done,” and “[a] little goes a long way. Should be limited to the extraordinary and not [used] in lieu of precise text.” Any visual aid must be based on the record and contain appropriate record or source references.
Electronic Review. Virtually all of the Justices are reviewing documents electronically. There may be a misperception that Justices simply review paper printouts of electronically filed documents. That is not the practice. All Justices of the Supreme Judicial Court and the Appeals Court have iPads, as well as desktop computers, that contain electronic files (PDFs) of each case including the briefs, transcripts, and appendices. The Justices use different programs and applications, primarily the GoodReader app, to search for keywords, highlight text, insert notes, and copy and paste material to aid in drafting a decision. However, to enable the Justices to use these search and annotation features, the rules require that all PDFs be created and efiled using optical character recognition (OCR) technology. OCR is not optional yet many attorneys continue to submit non-OCR documents, which the courts will reject or strike when identified.
In general, Justices remarked that electronic documents are easy to read and the clarity of exhibits is enhanced in the electronic over paper form. They expounded on the unparalleled convenience of having all of the documents at the tip of their fingers to access at any time of day, whether in the office, on the train, or in the courtroom. Although paperless review has some drawbacks, the many positives of electronic accessibility and utility outweigh those shortcomings.
Overall, when asked what effect electronic document practices have had on their review of case files, an overwhelming majority of the Justices responded favorably with only one negative response. The Justices reported a positive effect on their opinion writing, explaining that text-searchable documents, navigation, copying and pasting text, cite checking, and organizing multiple cases is much easier. One Justice responded that poorly organized electronic record appendices make writing much more difficult.
Bookmarks and Internal Links. One message many Justices asked us to emphasize is to encourage electronic filers to add bookmarks and internal links in electronic documents. They assist Justices to navigate a PDF. While internal links are currently allowed by S.J.C. Rule 1:25 but not required, the Justices surveyed overwhelmingly praised the inclusion of bookmarks and internal links in a document. A guide detailing how to create them in a brief or appendix is available on the Appeals Court website.
Filers should consider adding internal links to the table of contents in their brief, addendum, and appendices that allow Justices to “jump” to the various sections of the document. Including and bookmarking the Trial Court decision in the addendum to each brief or application for direct review, or the Appeals Court’s decision in an application for further review, is of the utmost importance. One unfortunate limitation that exists with the efiling vendor’s current program is that hyperlinks cannot be used to link to different PDFs or outside sources, such as a brief’s citations to a separate record appendix or transcript volume. Nevertheless, bookmarks and internal links are critical to the Justices’ review.
The Brief’s New Standard of Review Statement. The Justices unanimously agreed that Rule 16’s new requirement that a brief contain a standard of review section is helpful. However, one Justice noted that not all briefs include the statement, and expressed hope that more briefs will include it in the future, while another Justice commented that although more briefs are including a standard of review, it is not always the correct standard. These responses reveal the importance of ensuring a brief includes a correct standard of review to assist the Justices.
Citations to the Record Appendix. Because a hyperlink cannot be used in a brief to jump to a page in a separate record appendix volume, it is important that filers ensure that record appendix citations used in their brief are crystal clear. A Justice remarked that finding citations can be difficult because of complex references. Another Justice added that it would be helpful if all parties to a case used the same citation convention.
While the rules do not require a specific record citation convention, Rule 16(e) suggests: “RAII/55 (meaning Record Appendix volume II at page 55) or TRIII/231-232 (meaning Transcript volume III at pages 231-232).” It is recommended that you use this format because it is simple, less disruptive to the reader’s flow, and counts as one “word” for length calculation purposes.
Similarly, filers in civil appeals are reminded of Rule 18(b)(1)’s requirements to confer with the other parties at the beginning of each appeal to determine the contents of the appendix. Supplemental appendix volumes are especially apt to create confusion when they needlessly reproduce documents that were already included in the appellant’s appendix.
The “New” Record Appendix. Several Justices remarked that record appendices are often disorganized, contain a poor table of contents (one example given was “Administrative Record – p 1; Judgment – p. 1,265”), and volumes are not paginated so that the document page and PDF page correspond. Rule 18(a)(1)(A)(ii)’s new requirement that the table of contents “list the parts of the record reproduced therein, and includ[e] a detailed listing of exhibits, affidavits, and other documents associated with those parts,” illustrates the detail sought by the Justices.
Common Oversights. In addition to the Justices’ feedback, we also surveyed personnel in the Appeals Court’s Clerk’s Office to determine the most common omissions or errors they encounter when reviewing electronically filed briefs and appendices. They are:
(1) the brief or appendix is not OCR-searchable;
(2) the brief fails to comply with the pagination requirements in Rule 20(a)(4)(a), which requires filers to start a brief’s numbering with the cover as page 1, and eliminate the use of lower case Roman numerals for the tables of contents and authorities; the purpose of this rule is to have the brief paginated identically to the page numbers of its PDF version so that page references are easily ascertainable by the Justices;
(3) the absence of an addendum, which Rule 16(a)-(c) requires for any brief, and a table of contents for the addendum;
(4) a brief’s addendum, or a portion it, is not searchable using OCR while the rest of brief is OCR-searchable;
(5) Rule 16(k) brief certifications that are incomplete, specifically missing the required language identifying the filer’s calculation of the Rule 20 length limits; the court will not accept a brief without a compliant certification; and
(6) failure to include a complete table of contents in the first volume of a multi-volume appendix as required by Rule 18(a)(1)(C), or not including a table of contents in each separate appendix volume for that volume.
If you need any assistance or desire to double-check the requirements before uploading your PDF, the Appeals Court website provides detailed guidance for formatting documents for electronic filing, including checklists, and Clerk’s Office personnel are available to answer any questions.
Conclusion. After decades, and even centuries, of Massachusetts attorneys submitting and Justices deciding appeals on paper, much has changed in the past year. We hope these insights into the Justices’ current practices, preferences, and challenges will assist you in updating your practice to satisfy this new age of appeals.
Joseph Stanton is Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. He serves on several court committees involving procedural rules of court and technology initiatives.
Julie Goldman is an Assistant Clerk of the Massachusetts Appeals Court. She has been working on the Judicial Branch’s electronic filing program since 2013 to bring electronic filing to the state courts through drafting the electronic filings rules and working with vendors to develop and implement efiling.