Phillips & Angley attorneys, Nick Shapiro and Robbie Hopkins, co-authored and filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of the Real Estate Bar Association of Massachusetts and the Abstract Club, in the further appellate review proceedings, before the Supreme Judicial Court (the “SJC”), in Murchison v. Sherborn Zoning Bd. of Appeals, SJC-12867. In that brief, Shapiro and Hopkins advocated for the overturning of the Appeals Court’s decision in Murchison v. Sherborn Zoning Bd. of Appeals, 96 Mass. App. Ct. 158 (2019); which itself had reversed the judgment of the Land Court, Scheier, J., dismissing the abutter appeal for lack of standing. For background and context on the Appeals Court’s decision in Murchison, see Hopkins’s blog post of October 16, 2019.
Last week, on Thursday, March 5, 2020, the Supreme Judicial Court heard oral argument in Murchison. The first question from the SJC at that argument, posed by Chief Justice Gants, expressly referred to Shapiro’s and Hopkins’s argument, in their brief, as amici, that the Appeals Court committed “a conflation of the difference between the possibility of a violation and the question of whether or not even if there were a violation, there’s sufficient injury to obtain standing.” This first question set the tone for the morning, as the Justices appeared uncharacteristically openly hostile to the Appeals Court’s decision in Murchison, and this apparent hostility presaged an extraordinary outcome: a day later, on Friday, March 6, 2020, the SJC issued a two sentence order, as follows: “The judgment of the Land Court dated June 5, 2018, dismissing the plaintiffs’ complaint for lack of standing, is hereby affirmed. Opinion to follow.” Such swift action from the SJC is totally unprecedented in our experience at Phillips & Angley, as judicial decisions from all levels of the Massachusetts judiciary generally take many months and not one day.
Nevertheless, this rapid action underscores the SJC’s clear agreement with Shapiro and Hopkins on the merits, and the court’s concern about how the loosening of the standard for standing under the Zoning Act threatens greatly to exacerbate the Commonwealth’s present housing crisis, choking the courts with abutter appeals and stymying residential development. Score one for the good guys! And, to all clients, current, potential and future, don’t get any ideas! Judicial decisions are not going to start being issued the day after argument. This was a one off victory.