Land Court Department of the Trial Court
by Gordon H. Piper
Voice of the Judiciary
I am honored to have been asked to offer a few initial observations about the Land Court Department, from my new perch as its Chief Justice, a role I assumed at the end of October last year. I thank Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey for selecting me to serve.
We at the Land Court relish our status as the smallest of the seven departments of the Trial Court. Our seven justices hear cases from every corner of the Commonwealth. We “have gavel, will travel,” trying cases from Pittsfield to Nantucket, and in many courthouses in between. Our center of gravity does remain the high-rise courthouse on Pemberton Square in Boston, where most hearings take place, the Recorder’s office is located, and the court’s legal, title examination and surveying experts are based.
We also are enthusiastic about our responsibilities to adjudicate cases placed in our specialized jurisdiction. Our justices–and everyone else at the Land Court–appreciate the trust placed in us to understand and apply the law in a broad range of real-estate-related cases. We understand that lawyers and parties come to the Land Court expecting us to be up to speed and engaged on the subject matter with which we have been entrusted. While many of our judicial colleagues sitting in other departments of the Trial Court (and even some members of our own families) may quietly wonder, looking at the types of cases we hear, how the judges of the Land Court get up and come to work each morning, I assure you that we do so with gusto. We value role we play in the development of the common law of real estate in Massachusetts.
I have taken on my new job at a time of considerable change and opportunity at the court. My immediate predecessor, Chief Justice Judith C. Cutler, reached the age of retirement after a decade on the bench, the last five years as our Chief. And her predecessor, Chief Justice Karyn F. Scheier, also retired at the end of 2018; she had been a member of the court since 1994, including ten years as Chief Justice. These two distinguished jurists left indelible positive marks on our court and the Commonwealth’s judicial system.
We were delighted to welcome in January of this year Justice Jennifer S. D. Roberts and Justice Diane R. Rubin, who came to the Land Court after long years of prominent private practice and are leaping into their new positions, taking on very ample caseloads. They join four other greatly accomplished and respected Associate Justices, Hon. Keith C. Long, Hon. Robert B. Foster, Hon. Howard P. Speicher, and Hon. Michael D. Vhay. It is good to have our right-sized court up to its full fighting strength, at least for now. And I am grateful not only for the talent and dedication of my judicial colleagues, but of the entire leadership and staff of the court, including (but by no means limited to) Recorder Deborah J. Patterson, Deputy Court Administrator Jill K. Ziter, Deputy Recorder Ellen M. Kelley, Chief Title Examiner Edmund A. Williams, and Chief Surveyor Stephen LaMonica.
Improvements over the last several years in the general and real estate economies of the Commonwealth have brought a change in the mix of the court’s work. When the real estate markets were moribund and property values stayed stagnant, a disproportionate share of the court’s work concerned mortgage foreclosure and tax lien foreclosure matters, and others arising out of transactions and development plans in distress. Servicemembers Civil Relief Act cases have declined somewhat from the peak of more than 30,000 new cases filed in a year. More recently, an increasing percentage of our case load is driven by the state’s vibrant development activity–zoning and subdivision permit appeals, including some arising out of very large and complicated project plans. We also have rapid growth in the court’s volume of partition cases, with common owners of land seeking the court’s aid in equitably dividing their joint real estate asset. Both land use and partition cases demand additional courtroom time and more legal research and writing, continuing the pressure on the judges and staff of the court to keep up.
The court, which labors a bit with an undeserved reputation as a place of green eyeshades and quill pens, is moving ahead with a number of twenty-first century innovations. Like the rest of the Trial Court, the Land Court has embarked on e-filing of cases. We are underway with an initial pilot program in our Servicemembers Civil Relief Act case type, our largest by volume, and expect soon to expand that pilot to include more filers, before opening those cases to e-filing by all lawyers and firms. Following that, we intend to pilot e-filing in another large category of cases, those seeking the foreclosure of the right of redemption following real estate tax lien takings. Over the next several years we will push to bring e-filing to a wide variety of the court’s docket, including most of our Miscellaneous case types. The density of pleadings filed in many Land Court cases–a number of which include large plans, lengthy reports, and other challenging exhibits–may present some challenges, but the court shares with the bar the goal of being able over the coming years to have filed and accessed on line most of our ordinary case types. We soon will launch in at least one of the court’s sessions a trial of a “judicial tools” setup, which should allow the judge and clerk in that session to work with digital versions of many of the filings in the cases that judge is hearing.
We also have commenced work on modernizing the computer systems used by our Surveying Department, with the intention to have current drafting and survey production and indexing capabilities in use. The court is the repository of registered land plans from across Massachusetts dating back to soon after the founding of the Land Court in 1898, and, in later phases of this project, we hope to have digitized many of these critical plans, to enhance access to them by the bar, surveyors, and the public.
In a continuing effort to provide more efficient hearing and disposition of contested cases, a committee now chaired by Justice Speicher is convening, and will look over the court’s rules, standing orders, and procedural practices, building on past rules changes to expand opportunities to expedite, simplify, and reduce the cost of litigation in the Land Court. We anticipate soliciting the involvement of the bar and other stake holders in this effort over time. A related effort will look over the court’s mediation and other alternative dispute resolution process and methods. While we of course will insure every litigant the chance to have his or her case decided by the court, we acutely are aware that not infrequently the best resolution is one the parties themselves reach. We intend to seek out more and better ways to facilitate that.
One area of the court’s business that continues to grow in volume and complexity are the many cases subsequent to registration, our “S-cases,” in which the court is asked to make orders relative to the certificates of title for registered land. Our long-time Chief Title Examiner, Edmund Williams, soon will be retiring after decades of extraordinary service to the court, the conveyancing bar, and the citizens of the Commonwealth. He has helped the court issue extensive guidelines and guidance to the court’s land registration districts and the real estate bar. His successor, once selected and in place, will be challenged to hold to the high standards of the court’s Title Examination Department, and to continue positive strides made in the processing of the important S-case petitions. The last comprehensive revision to the court’s Guidelines on Registered Land issued in 2009, and the new Chief Title Examiner will work closely with the justices of the Land Court, with the input of the court’s Assistant Recorders and the bar, to make any needed updates and expansions to those guidelines.
My new post as Chief Justice of the Land Court presents exciting opportunities and challenges. I am grateful to have the very best judicial colleagues, court leaders, and so many other members of the Land Court team working alongside me, helping the court achieve great things for the users of the court and the citizens we serve.
The Honorable Gordon H. Piper has served on the Land Court since his appointment by Governor Jane M. Swift in 2002. Trial Court Chief Justice Paula M. Carey appointed him Chief Justice of the Land Court Department in October, 2018. Chief Justice Piper holds a 1978 bachelor of arts degree from Vanderbilt University, summa cum laude, where he was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa. In 1982, he received his JD degree, cum laude, from Cornell Law School.