The Massachusetts Constitution was ratified in 1780 while the Revolutionary War was still in progress, nine years before the United States Constitution was adopted. It is the oldest written Constitution now in use in the world. It specified three branches of Government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial.
The Governoris head of the executive branch and serves as chief administrative officer of the state and as commander-in-chief of Massachusett’s military forces. His or her responsibilities include preparation of the annual budget, nomination of all judicial officers, the granting of pardons (with the approval of the Governor’s Council), appointments of the heads of most major state departments, and the acceptance or veto of each bill passed by the Legislature. Several Executive Offices have also been established, each headed by a Secretary appointed by the Governor, much like the President’s Cabinet.
The Governor may recommend new policies for Massachusetts, new legislation, and changes in the administration of departments that conduct the government from day to day. He or she has the power to order out the National Guard to meet domestic emergencies, and is the state’s chief spokesman with the federal government.
The Lieutenant Governor serves as Acting Governor in the absence, death, or removal of the Governor. He or she is by law a voting member of the Executive Council, except when presiding over it in the absence of the Governor.
The Governor's Council (also called the Executive Council) is composed of the Lieutenant Governor and eight councillors elected from councillor districts for a two-year term. It has the constitutional power to approve judicial appointments and pardons, to authorize expenditures from the Treasury, to approve the appointment of constitutional officers if a vacancy occurs when the Legislature is not in session, and to compile and certify the results of statewide elections. It also approves the appointments of notaries public and justices of the peace.
The four other Constitutional Officers of Massachusetts are elected for four-year terms. They are listed in order of their succession to the Office of the Governor.
The Secretary of the commonwealth, Keeper of the Great Seal and custodian of the records of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, has many responsibilities which include: the administration of elections, maintenance of public records, filing and distribution of public documents, corporate registration, recordings of appointments and commissions, the storage of historical data, the preservation of historic sites, the administration and enforcement of the Massachusetts Uniform Securities Act, and information and referral on all aspects of state government.
The Attorney General is the chief legal officer of Massachusetts and its chief law-enforcing agent. He or she advises and represents the government of the Commonwealth, rendering opinions upon the request of its officials and serving as its lawyer in all court proceedings. The Attorney General also consults with and advises the state’s 11 district attorneys. Through his or her efforts in the areas of consumer and environmental protection, the office provides a voice for the average citizen.
The Treasurer and Receiver-General is the custodian of all Massachusetts state funds and is the only party authorized to make payment of those funds. Every state agency must deposit receipts and revenues which it has received with the Treasurer. The Treasurer is responsible for the issuance of state bonds and for the investment policy of the state. The State Board of Retirement and State Lottery Commission are under his or her jurisdiction.
The Auditor of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is in charge of auditing the accounts of all state entities and related activities at least once every two years. Based on legal guidelines, the Auditor’s Division of Local Mandates also determines whether the state or a municipality is responsible for a specific state-mandated service or program.
All of the Constitutional Officers serve on and work with Massachusetts boards and commissions.
“The Great and General Court”, elected every two years, is made up of a Senate of forty members and a House of Representatives of one hundred and sixty members. The Massachusetts Senate is the second oldest democratic deliberative body in the world. Each branch elects its own leader from its membership. The Senate elects its President; the House its Speaker. These officers exercise power through their appointments of majority floor leaders and whips (the minority party elects its leaders in a party caucus), their selection of chairs and all members of the joint committees, and in their rulings as presiding officers. Joint committees of the General Court are made up of six senators and fifteen representatives, with a Senate and House Chair for each committee. These committees must hold hearings on all bills filed. Their report usually determines whether or not a bill will pass. Each chamber has a separate Rules and a Ways and Means Committee and these are among the most important committee assignments.
Surrounded by laws as we are, how do we enact a law? Any citizen of Massachusetts may file a bill through a state legislator. The bill is assigned to a committee, given a public hearing, and reported by the committee to the appropriate chamber with a recommendation to pass or defeat. An adverse committee report may be accepted by majority vote of the House or Senate and the matter is thus disposed of. Sometimes the House or Senate substitutes a bill for the adverse committee report. Bills coming from committee with a favorable report or substituted bills must take three readings in each branch, but are subject to debate only on the second or third readings.
When both chambers have passed the bill in exactly the same form, it is then printed for final passage and returns for the vote of enactment. If the bill is changed by amendments in one house, it must return to the originating house for concurrence. It may be killed by either house, or if the two houses cannot agree on its form it may go to a conference committee which works out a compromise.
Once a bill is enacted by both houses the Governor has ten days in which to act upon it. He or she may:
a) Sign it and it becomes law (Usually to become effective in ninety days).
b) Return it for reconsideration with an Executive Amendment.
c) Veto it, requiring a two-thirds vote of both houses to pass it over his or her veto.
d) Refuse to sign it. After ten days it becomes law unless the Legislature prorogues during that time. If this happens, the bill dies. This is called a "pocket veto".
Judicial appointments are held to the age of seventy. The Supreme Judicial Court, consisting of a Chief Justice and six Associate Justices, is the highest court in the Commonwealth; it is empowered to advise the Governor and the Legislature on questions of law. All trials are held in departments and divisions of a unified Trial Court, headed by a Chief Administrative Justice assisted by an Administrator of Courts. It hears civil and criminal cases. Cases may be appealed to the Supreme Judicial Court or the Appeals Court for review of law, but findings of fact made by the Trial Court are final. The Superior Court, consisting of a Chief Justice and sixty-six Associate Justices, is the highest department of the Trial Court. Other departments are the District, Housing, Juvenile, Land, and Probate Courts.
The fourteen counties, moving roughly from west to east, are Berkshire, Franklin, Hampshire, Hampden, Worcester, Middlesex, Essex, Suffolk, Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, Barnstable, Dukes and Nantucket. Traditionally, each has been served by three County Commissioners with the exception of Nantucket and Suffolk. The five town selectmen of Nantucket serve as Commissioners; Suffolk’s Commissioners are the Mayor and City Council of Boston.
Massachusetts has 14 counties which were regional administrative districts before the Revolutionary War. Over time the counties administered jails, health facilities, agricultural schools, registries of deeds and probate, county courthouses, county roads and extension services. The counties were funded by local communities and the Commonwealth.
In 1997, Middlesex county government was abolished followed by the abolition of Berkshire, Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Hampshire, Suffolk and Worcester county governments. Their functions were turned over to state agencies. Sheriffs in these counties still administer jails but their employees are state employees. The legislation to abolish these county governments transferred registries of deeds to the jurisdiction of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.
Registers of Deeds and probate, sheriffs and district attorneys, even where county government has been abolished, are still elected in county political districts. In counties that have not been abolished or restructured, county commissioners and treasurers are still elected. It is important to understand that counties as geographical/political regions are not abolished or restructured; it is the government which is abolished and restructured.
Home rule legislation (since 1985) allows officials or voters in a county to establish a regional charter commission to study its government. The commission can submit one of three model charters for approval of voters in that county at a statewide election or it can submit a special charter that must first be approved by the state legislature.
Cities and towns may choose a Regional Council of Government charter that will be binding on those communities where a majority of voters in a city or town approve it. The regional council of governments can provide a variety of services to cities and towns, such as planning, public safety, engineering, water and waste disposal, and many other services. The participating communities pay assessments based on local property evaluation.
The legislature approved special charters to allow Franklin and Hampshire counties to become regional councils of government following the abolishment of certain county governments in 1996 and 1998. The “Cape Cod Regional Government” has been responsible for Barnstable county since 1988, and has not successfully sought legislative approval to changes in its charter. Northern Middlesex Council of Governments continues to provide planning and development assistance since 1963. Essex county is awaiting legislative approval to form a Council of Governments to streamline local governments and finances.
Bristol, Dukes, Nantucket, Norfolk, Plymouth and Suffolk county governments remain substantially unchanged.
The county level of government is not mentioned in the state Constitution and has been established by legislative action. No area of the Commonwealth is governed by a county, and as is usual in New England, county government is not a strong entity.
Note: Portions of this text provided by the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts whose website is at: lwvma.org/your-government/counties/
The cities of Massachusetts are governed by Mayors and City Councils, but towns are usually governed by groups of officials called Selectmen. A Board of Selectmen is usually elected for a one-or-two-year term, and town meetings, a tradition from Colonial times, are still held regularly.
In order to vote, you must be a citizen of the United States, at least 18 years old, and you must have been registered to vote in Massachusetts 20 days before the election. Massachusetts residents may pre-register to vote if they are 16 or 17 years old. Pre-registrants become registered voters when they turn 18.