Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

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Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Seal of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.svg
Established May 22, 1722 (1722-05-22)
Country Pennsylvania, United States
Location Harrisburg
Composition method Partisanly elected, retained by yes/no vote
Authorized by Pennsylvania Constitution
Judge term length 10 years
No. of positions 7
Website Official website
Chief Justice
Currently Thomas G. Saylor
Since January 6, 2015
Lead position ends December 2017
Jurist term ends December 2017
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is located in Pennsylvania
Court locations

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It also claims to be the oldest court in the United States,[1] which claim is disputed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.[2] The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania began in 1684 as the Provincial Court, and casual references to it as the "Supreme Court" of Pennsylvania were made official in 1722 upon its reorganization as an entity separate from the control of the royal governor.[3][4] Today, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania maintains a discretionary docket, meaning that the Court may choose which cases it accepts, with the exception of mandatory death penalty appeals, and certain appeals from the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court.[5] This discretion allows the Court to wield powerful influence on the formation and interpretation of Pennsylvania law.


Judges' seats in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chambers in the Pennsylvania State Capitol

The original Pennsylvania constitutions, drafted by William Penn, established a Provincial Court under the control of his British governors. The General Assembly, however, espoused the principle of separation of powers and formally called for a third branch of government starting with the 1701 Judiciary Bill. In 1722, the appointed British governor needed the House to raise revenues. House leaders agreed to raise taxes in return for an independent Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania predates the United States Supreme Court by more than 100 years. Interpreting the Pennsylvania Constitution, it was the first independent Supreme Court in the United States to claim the power to declare laws made by an elected legislative body unconstitutional.

Mural on the wall of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chambers in the Pennsylvania State Capitol

Composition and rules[edit]

The court meets in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court consists of seven justices, each elected to ten year terms. Supreme Court judicial candidates may run on party tickets. The justice with the longest continuous service on the court automatically becomes Chief Justice. Justices must step down from the Supreme Court when they reach the age of 75, but 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.[6]

Prior to 2002, judicial candidates in Pennsylvania were prohibited from expressing their views on disputed legal or political issues. However, after a similar law in Minnesota was struck down as unconstitutional (Republican Party of Minnesota v. White), the Pennsylvania rules were amended, and 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.” (PA Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7 (B)(1)(c))[7]

After the ten-year term expires, a statewide yes or 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. As of 2005, only one judge has failed to win retention. Justice Russell M. Nigro received a majority of no votes in the election of 2005 and was replaced by Justice Cynthia Baldwin, who was appointed by Governor Rendell in 2005.

Only one Supreme Court Justice, Rolf Larsen, has been removed from office by impeachment. In 1994, the State House of Representatives handed down articles of impeachment consisting of seven counts of misconduct. A majority of the State Senate voted against Larsen in five of the seven counts but only one charge garnered the two-thirds majority needed to convict.

Under the 1874 Constitution and until the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1968, Supreme Court justices were elected to 21 year terms. At the time, it was the longest term of any elected office in the United States.[citation needed]


Current members[edit]

Name Born Elected Party When First Elected Year of Next Retention Election Reaches Age 75 Prior Positions and Education

Thomas G. Saylor (Chief Justice)

(1946-12-14) December 14, 1946 (age 71) in Somerset County, Pennsylvania 1997 (retained in 2007, 2017) Republican None – final term December 14, 2021 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (1993–1997); Private Practice (1987–1993); First Deputy Attorney General, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1983–1987); Director, Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection (1982–1983); First Assistant District Attorney, Somerset County (1973–1976); Private Practice (1972–1982); J.D., Columbia Law School (1972); B.A., University of Virginia (1969).

Max Baer

(1947-12-24) December 24, 1947 (age 69) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 2003 (retained in 2013) Democratic None – final term December 24, 2022 Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (1989–2003); Private Practice (1980–1989); Deputy Attorney General, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1975–1979); J.D., Duquesne University School of Law (1975); B.A., University of Pittsburgh (1971).

Debra Todd

(1957-10-15) October 15, 1957 (age 60) in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania 2007 (retained in 2017) Democratic 2027 October 15, 2032 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2000–2007); Private Practice (1982–1999); J.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Law (1982); B.A., Chatham College (1979).
Christine Donohue (1952-12-24) December 24, 1952 (age 64) in Coaldale, Pennsylvania 2015 Democratic 2025 December 24, 2027 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2008–2015); Private Practice, (1980–2007); J.D., Duquesne University School of Law (1980); B.A., East Stroudsburg University (1974).
Kevin Dougherty (1962-05-19) May 19, 1962 (age 55) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2015 Democratic 2025 May 19, 2037 Judge, Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas (2001–2016); Private Practice, (1995–2001); Assistant District Attorney, Philadelphia County (1990–1995);J.D., Antioch School of Law (1987); B.A., Temple University (1985).
David Wecht (1962-05-20) May 20, 1962 (age 55) in Baltimore, Maryland[8] 2015 Democratic 2025 May 20, 2037 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2012–2015); Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (2003–2012); Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans' Court, Allegheny County; Law Clerk, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge George MacKinnon; J.D., Yale Law School (1987); B.A., Yale University (1984).
Sallie Updyke Mundy (1962-06-29) June 29, 1962 (age 55) in Elmira, New York Appointed in 2016. Elected to full term in 2017. Republican 2027 June 29, 2037 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2010–2016); Private Practice (1988-2009); Volunteer Public Defender, Public Defender's Office of Tioga County; Law Clerk, Tioga County Court of Common Pleas (1987-1988); J.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Law (1987); B.A., Washington and Jefferson College (1984).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Supreme Court - Courts - Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania". Retrieved 7 July 2017. 
  2. ^ sjc (17 July 2013). "About the Supreme Judicial Court". Court System. Retrieved 7 July 2017. 
  3. ^ "About the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania - SCOPA Review". Retrieved 7 July 2017. 
  4. ^ Rowe, G. S. (1994). Embattled bench: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the forging of a democratic society, 1684-1809. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
  5. ^ See generally,' 'Pa.R.A.P. 1112
  6. ^ "Judicial Qualifications, Election, Tenure and Vacancies". The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. 
  7. ^ "Pennsylvania Code". 
  8. ^ Judicial Biographies, Pennsylvania Appellate Judges, Superior Court.

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 40°15′51″N 76°53′01″W / 40.264260°N 76.883578°W / 40.264260; -76.883578