Massachusetts' highest court issued a ruling detailing affirming but clarifying the role that special magistrate judges should play in unraveling the mess caused by a rogue state chemist suspected of falsifying evidence in hundreds of drug cases.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court issued a combined ruling in three cases addressing legal questions about the special magistrates. For example, they are not allowed to issue stays of sentences already being served, although they may conduct fact-finding and issue recommendations on motions for stays, the court said.

The court spoke on July 22 in Commonwealth v. Charles, Commonwealth v. Milette and District Attorney for the Eastern District vs. Superior Court Department of the Trial Court.

The court’s procedures concern cases that involved former state police drug lab chemist Annie Dookhan, who allegedly falsified drug tests, altered evidence and forged signatures. Dookhan, who resigned in March 2012, worked on an estimated 34,000 cases. The cases were before the court because the Commonwealth of Massachusetts challenged the authority given to the special magistrates Essex County district attorney Jonathan Blodgett refused to participate in the proceedings.

In October 2012, high court assigned judges in seven counties to handle special "drug lab sessions" addressing the fall-out. In 6 1/2 weeks, those judges held 589 hearings.

Later, the high court appointed five retired Superior Court judges in six counties as special judicial magistrates with authority to preside over arraignments; set bail; assign counsel; supervise pretrial conferences; and mark up motions for hearing. The court authorized them “to conduct hearings on post conviction motions, to issue orders regarding discovery, and other matters.”

Associate Justice Francis Spina wrote the opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roderick Ireland and associate justices Margot Botsford, Robert Cordy, Fernande Duffly, Ralph Gants and Barbara Lenk.

The court said that a Superior Court judge has the authority to allow a defendant's motion to stay a sentence pending a new trial motion, but that the special magistrates do not. Special magistrates have no authority to reconsider a Superior Court judge’s denial of a motion to stay a defendant's sentence. But the special magistrate can make proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law on the motion, he wrote.

Spina also held that special magistrates have the authority to conduct guilty plea colloquies during special drug lab sessions.

The alleged misconduct at the drug lab creates “exceptional circumstances warranting this court's exercise of its superintendence powers,” he said.

“In the extraordinary circumstances presented here, the role of the special magistrate is to expedite the processing of an anticipated avalanche of cases through the special drug lab sessions by, preliminarily, making findings whether, among other things, a defendant has decided to plead guilty to the charges against him voluntarily and with a full understanding of the consequences of such action,” Spina wrote.

Matthew Segal, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts who was counsel on the Milette case for the national ACLU, said the decision largely was positive. “One of the things you see in this opinion is the court recognizing how important this problem is and that it deserves drastic remedies,” he said.

Segal said he was co-counsel on the Charles case with Beth Eisenberg of the Committee for Public Counsel Services’ public defender division.

In a written statement, Essex County, Mass., district attorney Jonathan Blodgett said: “I am pleased with the Court’s decision as it clarifies the procedures of the Superior Court drug lab sessions and defines the powers and duties of the Special Magistrates. As the plaintiff in this matter, our overriding concern was the possibility of re-litigating Dookhan drug lab cases for a third time. This would have stretched the already limited resources of all the District Attorney’s Offices.”

Assistant Essex County district attorney Ronald DeRosa argued for the state.

Massachusetts assistant attorney general Jennifer Grace Miller, who argued one of the cases, and her office did not respond to requests for comment.

Sheri Qualters can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.