Judiciary of Pennsylvania
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the state supreme court and court of last resort. The intermediate appellate courts in Pennsylvania are the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (for matters involving state agencies) and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (for all other appeals).
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania is one of two Pennsylvania intermediate appellate courts. The jurisdiction of the nine-judge Commonwealth Court is limited to appeals from final orders of certain state agencies and certain designated cases from the Courts of Common Pleas involving public sector legal questions and government regulation. The Commonwealth Court also functions as a trial court in some civil actions by or against the Commonwealth government and cases regarding statewide elections.
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania is one of two Pennsylvania intermediate appellate courts. Appeal to the Superior Court is generally of right from final decisions of the Court of Common Pleas. Although different panels of three judges may sit to hear appeals, there is only one Superior Court (that is, Pennsylvania is not divided into appellate territories). The court is based in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and sits to hear cases in Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia.
Courts of Common Pleas
The Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas are the state trial courts of general jurisdiction. There are 60 judicial districts, 53 comprising one of Pennsylvania's 67 counties, and seven comprising two counties. Each district has from one to 93 judges.
The Courts of Common Pleas hear civil cases with an amount in controversy in excess of $7,000 and trials for serious crimes. They have original jurisdiction over all cases not exclusively assigned to another court and appellate jurisdiction over judgments from the minor courts. They also hear appeals from certain state and most local government agencies.
The Courts of Common Pleas also hear matters involving family law (cases involving adoption, divorce, child custody, abuse and neglect, and guardianships), juvenile delinquency, trusts and estates (such as probate), and charitable organizations.
Magisterial District Courts
The commonwealth consists of 67 counties. In every county except for Philadelphia County, there are Magisterial District Courts. These courts are inferior courts of limited jurisdiction. They handle landlord-tenant matters, small civil claims (cases involving amount in controversy up to $12000), summary offenses, violations of municipal ordinances, and preliminary hearings and arraignments in greater misdemeanor and felony offenses pursuant to Pennsylvania's Rules of Criminal Procedure which go on to be tried in the Court of Common Pleas. In some counties, such as Chester County, Magisterial District Courts may issue emergency protection from abuse orders when the Domestic Relations or Court of Common Pleas is closed.
Magisterial District Courts divide up their jurisdiction by geographical location. Most such districts include several municipalities. Larger cities and municipalities may be divided seven of which are located within the City of Allentown.
Magisterial District Judges do not have to be lawyers; however, those who are not lawyers are required to complete a certification course prior to serving. The Magisterial District Courts are supervised by the President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of that judicial district.
Philadelphia County Courts
The only county that does not have a Magisterial District Court system is Philadelphia County, which has a Philadelphia County Municipal Court and a Philadelphia County Traffic Court instead. These courts hear similar matters to the Magisterial District Courts, but the jurisdictional limit is $12,000. The Philadelphia Municipal Court has jurisdiction over all misdemeanor criminal matters and presides over preliminary hearings in felony cases. The Philadelphia Traffic Court is a traffic court. Philadelphia Municipal Court judges must be lawyers, while the Philadelphia Traffic Court judges do not.
The Supreme Court justice with the longest continuous service on the court automatically becomes Chief Justice.
A president judge and a court administrator serve in each of the 60 judicial districts. In districts with seven or fewer judges, the president judge with the longest continuous service holds this position. In districts with eight or more judges, the president judge is elected to a five-year term by the court.
The official reporter for the Supreme Court is the Pennsylvania State Reports since 1845. There are no official reporters for either the Superior Court or the Commonwealth Court, but the Pennsylvania Reporter (a Pennsylvania-specific version of the Atlantic Reporter) is an unofficial reporter. There is no official reporting of decisions of trial courts, but County Court (Common Pleas Court) opinions are selectively published in the Pennsylvania District and County Reports. Many counties also publish their own reporters which contain select trial court opinions for that county. Estate and trusts trial cases are published in the Fiduciary Reporter, and local government cases (both trial and appellate) are published in Chrostwaite's Pennsylvania Municipal Law Reporter. The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts also posts opinions from the Supreme Court (from November 1996), Superior Court (from December 1997), and Commonwealth Court (from January 1997) on its website. Superior Court opinions were published in the Pennsylvania Superior Court Reports from 1895–1997, and Commonwealth Court opinions were published in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Reports from 1970–1995.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices are elected to ten year terms. Supreme Court judicial candidates may run on party tickets. After the ten year term expires, a statewide YES/NO vote for retention is conducted. If the judge is retained, he/she serves another ten year term. If the judge is not retained, the Governor—subject to the approval of the State Senate—appoints a temporary replacement until a special election can be held.
Judicial candidates may now express political viewpoints as long as they do not "commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court."
Justices must step down from the Supreme Court when they reach the age of 70, although they may continue to serve part-time as "senior justices" on panels of the Commonwealth's lower appellate courts until they reach 78, the age of mandatory retirement.
Judges of the Common Pleas courts are elected to 10-year terms.
At a preliminary hearing in criminal matters, the Commonwealth must prove a prima facie case against the accused, in which the Commonwealth argues that (1) a crime was probably committed and (2) the accused probably committed the crime. Should the Commonwealth meet its burden, the Magisterial District Judge orders the case held for trial in the Court of Common Pleas; otherwise, the case is dismissed at the District Court level. The accused also has the option to waive his or her right to a preliminary hearing.
All persons have an unlimited right of appeal from the minor courts (Magisterial District Courts and Philadelphia County Courts) to the Courts of Common Pleas.
- "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Rydal-Meadowbrook Civic Association
- "Commonwealth of Pennsylvania," Rydal-Meadowbrook Civic Association
- 42 Pa.C.S. §§ 761-764
- "Pennsylvania Legal Research - Getting Started". Jenkins Law Library. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- Zimmerman, Andrew. "Zimmerman's Research Guide". LexisNexis. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- "Cases - General Legal Research - Research Guides at Earle Mack School of Law Legal Research Center at Drexel University". Earle Mack School of Law. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
- PA Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7 (B)(1)(c)
- "Pennsylvania Code". pacode.com.
- "Judicial Qualifications, Election, Tenure and Vacancies". The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.
- Official website of the Administrative Office of the Pennsylvania Courts