Primer on PA Courts

This article was featured in the November-December 2014 edition of the Pennsylvania Lawyer, reproduced below with the permission of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.

Article V of the Pennsylvania Constitution establishes a Unified Judicial System comprised of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Superior Court, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, various Courts of Common Pleas and Magisterial District Courts, as well as specific municipal and traffic courts.

Magisterial District Courts

The first level of Pennsylvania's judiciary can be referred to, for the most part, as Magisterial District Courts. Such district courts are presided over by Magisterial District Judges (MDJs) who are not required to be attorneys, but any MDJ who is not an attorney must complete a course of training and instruction in the duties of the office and must pass a qualifying exam administered and conducted by staff of the Minor Judiciary Education Board prior to assuming office, as authorized by 42 Pa.C.S.A Sections 3112 and 3113. The Philadelphia Municipal Court does have judges who are required to be licensed attorneys, but that court's Traffic Division judges can be non-lawyers. Currently there are approximately 527 appointed or elected MDJs throughout Pennsylvania.

The members of the minor judiciary are responsible for, among other things, determining whether serious criminal cases are to be bound over to a county court of common pleas; overseeing preliminary arraignments and preliminary hearings in criminal matters; setting and accepting bail, except in murder or voluntary-manslaughter cases; handling landlord-tenant matters; and presiding over certain types of civil claims where the sum demanded does not exceed $12,000, exclusive of interest and costs, as set forth in 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 1515.

Additionally, other than the Philadelphia Traffic Division, the minor judiciary also handles matters involving motor vehicle citations.

Courts of Common Pleas

The Courts of Common Pleas are Pennsylvania's general trial courts. Currently, there are 60 judicial districts that oversee the 67 counties in Pennsylvania. Therefore, most counties have their own courts of common pleas, but several of the smaller counties share courts with a neighboring county. Each of the 60 judicial districts has a president judge and a court administrator who oversees the court calendar and the distribution of civil, criminal and estate matters.

The Courts of Common Pleas generally have unlimited original jurisdiction of all actions and proceedings, including, without limitation, appeals from the minor judiciary, appeals from civil arbitrations and matters involving estates.

Superior Court

The Superior Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction to hear appeals from both criminal cases and civil matters, which may be filed directly from the Courts of Common Pleas. As per Article V, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, there must be at least seven Superior Court Judges. Currently, the Superior Court has 15 judges, as per 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 541. Cases are usually heard in panels of three judges sitting in Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh but may also be heard by the court en banc (heard by all judges). The Superior Court sometimes travels to other locations to hear appeals throughout Pennsylvania.

Commonwealth Court

Article V Section 4 of the 1968 Pennsylvania Constitution created the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court is comprised of nine judges, as per 42 Pa.C.S.A. Section 561. It is responsible for original civil actions brought by and against the Commonwealth and appeals from decisions made by state and local governmental and regulatory agencies and the Courts of Common Pleas. Similar to the Superior Court, cases are typically heard by panels of three judges in Harrisburg, Philadelphia or Pittsburgh (or at other locations, as determined by the court) but may in certain circumstances be heard by a single judge or the court en banc (all judges).

Supreme Court

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the oldest appellate court in the United States and is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Supreme Court has seven justices who hear matters at their sole discretion. It reviews requests for appeals from both the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court and, in certain instances, direct appeals from a lower court. The Supreme Court also addresses matters involving death sentences and requests for intervention in court proceedings as well as requests that may involve the improper or illegal detention of an individual. The Supreme Court also has authority over the enforcement of rules and regulations relating to the conduct of judges and attorneys, including, but not limited to, a Judicial Review Board and the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Additionally, the Supreme Court oversees the rules of procedure governing civil and criminal actions in Pennsylvania. The seven justices receive more than 3,000 requests for appellate review annually.