Unified Court Systems:
Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System, as one of the state’s three “equal
and independent branches of government,” is entrusted with preserving the
rule of law and guaranteeing the rights and liberties of its citizens. The
court aims to do so “by fairly resolving disputes brought before juries and
judges as prescribed by law and by administering all aspects of the judicial
process consistent with provisions of the constitutions of the United States
of America and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
For public understanding, Pennsylvania likens its court system to a pyramid,
with a base of numerous
“special courts” such as magisterial district judges, Philadelphia and
Pittsburgh municipal courts and Philadelphia Traffic Court. The second tier
of the pyramid is composed of the Common Pleas Courts. Superior Court and
Commonwealth Court form the third layer, and the pyramid is capped by the
Pennsylvania Supreme Court. We will deal with these inversely.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court
The court is composed of
seven justices, a chief and six associates.
Justices re elected to 10-year terms and can run on party tickets. The
justice with the longest continuous service on the Supreme Court
automatically is named chief justice.
Presently, the chief justice of the
Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the
Honorable Ralph J. Cappy.
Supreme Court justices, as are all Pennsylvania judges, are subject to
mandatory retirement at age 70, although under certain circumstances retired
judges can service the courts as “senior judges” up to age 75, providing
extra manpower to help alleviate heavy caseloads.
Both judicially and administratively, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the
state’s highest court. In matters of law, it is the commonwealth’s “court of
last resort.” Administratively, the Supreme Court maintains a single,
integrated judicial system through its supervisory authority over all other
In 1980s, the state legislature decreased the Supreme Court’s mandated
jurisdiction by expanding the jurisdiction of Pennsylvania’s superior
courts. That act allowed the state Supreme Court, like the United States
Supreme Court, to exercise its own discretion in accepting or rejecting most
appeals, which in turn allows the court to devote more time and attention to
important cases with far-reaching consequences. The move also gave the court
more time to exercise its constitutional obligation to administer the lower
Opinions issued by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
are available from the court’s Web site, and are searchable by date, content
and other parameters.
Pennsylvania Superior Court was established in
1895 to hear the appeals of certain decisions made by the commonwealth’s
courts of common pleas. Occasionally the legislature would expand the
superior courts’ jurisdiction, and today it decides appeals touching on
almost every aspect of life, law and commerce in the state, including family
law (child custody, visitation, adoption, divorce and support), criminal
cases, matters of wills and estates, property disputes and those involving
breach of contract or personal injury. Superior Court judges also are
responsible for hearing applications made by the attorney general and
district attorneys under the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control
The Superior Court often is the final arbiter of legal disputes in
Pennsylvania. The state Supreme Court might grant a petition for appeal, but
the large majority of cases appealed after a Superior Court decision are
denied a hearing before the Supreme Court.
Originally composed of seven judges to sat together to hear every case, the
Superior Court was expanded in 1978 by order of the Supreme Court. Under its
constitutionally provided supervisory powers, the Supreme Court, due to an
“exceedingly heavy volume of appeals coming to the Superior Court,” began
hearing the cases in three-judge panels composed of one Supreme Court
Justice, a Superior Court judge and a Common Pleas judge. By rule, the
Supreme Court provided that each panel would constitute a quorum and speak
for the entire Superior Court.
A year later, voters approved amending the
Pennsylvania Constitution to permanently enlarge Superior Court. Now, the
15 judges, elected by voters. Judges gained
seniority by length of continuous service on the court, and elected judges
receive seniority over those who serve by appointment. The president judge –
Judge Kate Ford Elliott – is chosen by election of
the court itself and serves a five-year term.
Unless the court specifically orders consideration of a case by an en banc
panel of nine judges, Pennsylvania Superior Court continues to hear cases in
three-judge panels assisted by senior judges specially appointed by the
For Superior Court purposes, the state is divided in
Eastern, Middle and Western. The Eastern District
courtroom is the
Founders Courtroom in Philadelphia. Superior Court
in the Middle District is conducted in the
Harrisburg Courtroom on the fourth floor of the
historic Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg. In the Western
District, court convenes in the
Pittsburgh Courtroom on the eighth floor of the
city-county building in Pittsburgh.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court Web site offers links
to a wealth of information about the courts, including a
contact directory, its
opinions issued, a
docket search feature,
frequently asked questions including filing fees,
and online versions of the courts’
Authorized by Article V, Section 4 of the 1968
Pennsylvania Constitution, the
Commonwealth Court was established in 1970 to
serve as an additional, intermediate appellate court for the state.
The court meets at 624 Irvis Office Building in the capital city of
Harrisburg. Its jurisdiction is limited to appeals from final orders of
certain state agencies and certain designated cases from the Courts of
Common Pleas. The Commonwealth Court also serves as a trial court for some
civil suits, including cases involving the state or its officers as parties
and cases regarding statewide elections.
Nine judges comprise the Commonwealth Court, and
they are presently led by President Judge Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter.
Information at the court’s Web site includes the
document filing fees, and links o both the court’s
reported opinions and
unreported opinions, the latter of which are not
to be cited by other courts.
Court of Common Pleas
courts of common pleas are midlevel courts that
hear all major criminal and civil cases in the state, appeals from lower
courts in civil, criminal and traffic matters, and most cases involving
children and family law.
A common pleas court is maintained in
each county, with
contact information for the courts in all 67
counties/districts available online.
Local rules applicable to the common pleas courts
in each county also are available.
The appropriate court of common pleas can be found by
this list of external links maintained by the
Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System. Some county courts have their own
links in the list, while others must be reached by first linking to the
county’s main Web site.
In Pennsylvania, the so-called “Special
Courts” consist of four types of courtroom venu –
the magisterial district judges, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh municipal
courts, and Philadelphia Traffic Court.
These courts hear less serious, non-injury criminal cases, many civil cases
and all traffic matters. The special courts also have jurisdiction over
matters of bail, and make the determination whether more serious criminal
cases, such as murder, should be advanced to the Court of Common Pleas.
The Pennsylvania Unified Judicial System maintains a
searchable list of
magisterial district judges, links to
local rules pertaining to each lower court, and a
of fees and other information pertinent to doing
business in these courts.