The Courts

Chapter 6:
The Courts

The judicial system is part of the larger criminal justice system in Pennsylvania. The judicial system is made up of state agencies that work together to prevent crimes and to punish those who break the law. There is one unified judicial system in Pennsylvania, but how the system works is partly determined by where a crime was committed or where a disagreement originated. This could be a municipality or county. However, the judicial system primarily handles crimes committed within the boundaries of the state.

There are five parts of the state’s judicial system. Though this chapter focuses upon the courts, there are also police departments (or other public safety organizations), prisons, lawyers who prosecute cases before the court, and lawyers who represent those on trial.

Law enforcement, usually police departments or the Pennsylvania State Police, report crimes, investigate crimes, and arrest suspected criminals. They may also testify in court.

Prosecutors are lawyers who work for the state or federal government. They first review evidence to see if a case should go to trial. They prepare court cases and question witnesses in court. They also may have the power to offer plea bargains.

Persons on trial hire lawyers to defend them (defense attorneys). If a defendant cannot afford a lawyer the court will assign one.

The Department of Corrections is the state agency that supervises those in jail, in prison, or on probation/parole. This agency supports the court with research and information, and may help a judge prepare a verdict. Corrections Officers keep prisons secure and safe.

The courts in Pennsylvania are the final part of Pennsylvania’s criminal justice system. The courts serve two tasks: to arbitrate and resolve disputes among residents and to enforce the laws established by the Legislative Branch. In Pennsylvania the court system is established by Article V of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, which provides that “The judicial power of the Commonwealth shall be vested in a unified judicial system consisting of the Supreme Court, the Superior Court, the Commonwealth Court, courts of common pleas, community courts, municipal and traffic courts in the City of Philadelphia, and such other courts as may be provided by law and justices of the peace.” The idea of a unified judicial system is central to how things work in Pennsylvania.

As designed by the Pennsylvania Constitution, the unified judicial system has three levels. Often a first doorway to the court system by a Pennsylvania resident is through the lowest level, or the “minor courts.” These are usually Magisterial District Courts which are located in every county but Philadelphia. They are called minor courts because they often deal with issues such as traffic tickets or minor offenses. There is no jury in a Magisterial District Court.

Relationship among the courts.

The triangle shows the relationship among these courts.

Philadelphia has its own Municipal Court and its own Traffic Court. Pittsburgh also has its own Municipal Court.

For a jury trial residents will file a petition at the Courts of Common Pleas. These are jury trials that can address criminal charges or resolve civil matters such as family estates or serious accidents. Pennsylvania has 60 judicial districts served by a Court of Common Pleas.

The results of a trial in the Courts of Common Pleas can be tried again in the Appellate Courts. There are three such courts that serve Pennsylvania: two intermediate courts called the Superior Court, and the Commonwealth Court that hears appeals for former trials that involve state government.

Running the Courts

Courts are run by judges. In Pennsylvania judges can be appointed or elected, but there are basic requirements to be a judge. The judge must live where he/she serves and must be a citizen of the United States. Judges have a strict code of conduct and are held to high ethical standards.

All judges, but not Magisterial District Judges, must belong to the Bar of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Bar is the official organization of lawyers and serves several purposes, including certifying lawyers to practice in Pennsylvania. You can read more about the Pennsylvania Bar Association at www.pabar.org. A series of FAQs is provided for citizens.

Pennsylvania is one of only two states that holds elections of judges in odd-numbered years. Most major elections are held on even-numbered years. If a judge cannot keep his/her position until the next election the Governor can appoint a judge until the next election. These temporary appointments must be approved by the Pennsylvania Senate.

Appellate court judges and judges for the Courts of Common Pleas are elected to ten year terms. Magisterial District Judges and Philadelphia Municipal Courts judges are elected to six year terms.

Pennsylvania judges are chosen in partisan elections. Pennsylvania’s constitution provides a “merit retention” option that allows judges to run for another term by a “yes” or “no” vote on the ballet. Judges do not run for re-election as a member of a specific political party. However, judges can be removed from office for misconduct. They can also be disciplined or suspended. Misconduct is defined by the Standards of Conduct of Magisterial District Judges, the Pennsylvania Rules of the Court, and rules set up by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania judges face mandatory retirement at age 70. Some will continue to serve as senior judges, appointed by the state’s Supreme Court. Read more about the courts at Pennsylvania Court Structure.

The Judicial System

The Pennsylvania judicial system is composed of a supreme court, a superior court, a commonwealth court, a court of common pleas, and various minor courts. The supreme, superior, and commonwealth courts are appellate courts, and the court of common pleas is the trial court of general jurisdiction.

There are terms needed to understand the judicial system in Pennsylvania. Here are the most important, listed alphabetically.

Appellate Court
A court that reviews the decisions of lower courts or administrative agencies. Pennsylvania has three appellate courts: the Supreme Court, the Superior Court, and the Commonwealth Court.
Civil Action
An action for the recovery of private or civil rights or compensation for the violation of such rights.
Court of Record
A court that must keep a record of its proceedings.
Criminal Action
An action by the state to punish violations of the crimes code.
Habeas corpus
The writ used to bring a person before a court to ensure that their detention is not illegal. The phrase in Latin literally means “that you have the body.”
Jury
A group of persons called to hear a case, determine questions of fact, and reach a verdict. In Pennsylvania, a jury in a criminal matter must consist of 12 persons, and may also include one or two alternates.
Jurisdiction
The authority that a court has to issue a decision.
Mandamus
Literally “we command.” A writ issued by a higher court directing an inferior court or government officer to take a particular action.
Trial Court
A court of original jurisdiction where evidence is first received.

Appellate and Trial Courts

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the Commonwealth’s highest court. It is the oldest appellate court in the United States, established by the Provincial Assembly on May 22, 1722. It predates the Supreme Court of the United States by 67 years.

The Supreme Court hears appeals from the lower courts and from several administrative agencies. The Court receives approximately 2,500 civil and criminal appeals each year, and must select those it will hear. If it refuses to hear an appeal, the decision of the lower court stands. The Court also has original jurisdiction in certain matters, such as cases of habeas corpus and mandamus. By law, it must review all death penalty cases in the Commonwealth. In addition, the Court administers Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System.

Seven judges (called justices) serve on the Court; the justice with the longest continuous service presides as chief justice. The justices are elected for ten-year terms and must retire at age 70. Supreme Court justices must be United States citizens who are residents of Pennsylvania, and must be lawyers admitted to the Bar of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Court meets in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The Superior Court

The Pennsylvania Superior Court was established in 1895. It hears appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas, and has original jurisdiction that is limited to certain criminal matters (primarily involving wiretapping and electronic surveillance). Appeals are heard by three-judge panels that meet in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The Superior Court consists of not less than 7 judges who elect one member to preside as President Judge. Their requirements and terms of office are the same as those of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The Commonwealth Court

The Commonwealth Court was created by Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1968. It serves as a third appellate court, hearing appeals from most state administrative agencies, and has original jurisdiction over civil actions brought against the Commonwealth. The Court usually sits in three-judge panels that meet in Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

The Commonwealth Court consists of nine judges who elect one member to preside as President Judge. Their requirements and terms of office are the same as those of the Pennsylvania Supreme and Superior Courts.

The Courts of Common Pleas

The Courts of Common Pleas serve as Pennsylvania’s trial courts. Most civil and criminal cases are heard in the Courts of Common Pleas.

Pennsylvania has 60 judicial districts, each having its own Court of Common Pleas. Most of these districts cover a single county; however, seven districts include two counties. The Courts of Common Pleas have existed since the Constitution of 1776.

Each judicial district has at least one judge. The number will vary based on the population of the judicial district; those with larger populations will have more judges. The judge with the longest continuous service presides as President Judge. The requirements and terms of office of Common Pleas judges are the same as those of the Pennsylvania Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Courts.

If requested in criminal and some civil cases, a jury (sometimes called a petit jury) may be called to hear evidence and to decide questions of fact. In criminal cases the jury must have 12 members; in civil cases the number may be less than 12 provided that the parties agree. A jury’s verdict in a criminal case must be unanimous. If a jury fails to reach a verdict it is said to be a hung jury. If a jury cannot reach a verdict, a new trial may be ordered.

Minor (or Special) Courts

Magisterial District Judges

Magisterial District Judges serve in all Pennsylvania counties except Philadelphia. At one time judges at this level were called “Justices of the Peace.” These courts are not courts of record.

Magisterial District Judges hear such matters as criminal summary cases, landlord-tenant disputes, minor civil actions where the amount in controversy does not exceed $8,000, and traffic cases. They also preside over preliminary arraignments and preliminary hearings except those involving murder or manslaughter.

Magisterial District Judges are elected to six-year terms. They are not required to be lawyers, although some Magisterial District Judges are lawyers. All Magisterial District Judges are required to undergo special training and to attend continuing education programs.

Philadelphia Municipal Court

The Philadelphia Municipal Court is the only Minor Court in Pennsylvania that is a court of record. It is also the only Minor Court whose judges must be lawyers. However, like the Magisterial District Judges, the judges of the Philadelphia Municipal Court serve six-year terms.

The Philadelphia Municipal Court hears criminal cases involving maximum jail sentences of five years or less, civil cases where the amount in controversy is $10,000 or less, landlord-tenant cases; and school and real estate tax cases. The Court also presides over all adult preliminary arraignments and most preliminary hearings in Philadelphia.

Philadelphia Traffic Court

The Philadelphia Traffic Court hears cases involving moving violations of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code and Philadelphia traffic ordinances. Philadelphia Traffic Court judges serve six-year terms; they are not required to be lawyers. The Philadelphia Traffic Court is not a court of record.

Pittsburgh Municipal Court

The Pittsburgh Municipal Court includes the 13 Magisterial District Judges whose districts are in the City of Pittsburgh as well as other Allegheny County Magisterial District Judges appointed by the President Judge of the Allegheny Court of Common Pleas. The Court is divided into criminal, traffic and non-traffic divisions.

The website for the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania is available at http://www.pacourts.us/. A helpful overview is provided by Allegheny County Bar Association and can be found at http://www.acba.org/Public/For-Kids/Court-System.asp. Their use of a triangle helps show the relationships among the differing state courts.

Court-Related Officers and Personnel

Clerk of Courts

The Clerk of Courts is responsible for maintaining the criminal records for the court. In some counties the offices of Clerk of Courts and Prothonotary may be combined.

Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division

Miscelleanous matters are filed with the Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division, including adoptions, guardianships, actions involving estates, and trusts. Pennsylvania marriage licenses are issued by the Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division. In most counties the Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division is also the Register of Wills.

Court Reporter

The Court Reporter records and transcribes what is said in a court of record, providing a written record of the proceedings.

Prothonotary

The Prothonotary is the clerk of the civil records division for the court and is responsible for filing, storing, and distributing official civil documents. The term “Prothonotary” means “First Notary;” the office dates back to Roman times.

Row Officers

The Clerk of Courts, Clerk of the Orphan’s Court Division and Prothonotary, along with the Controller, Coroner, District Attorney, Recorder of Deeds, Register of Wills, Sheriff, and Treasurer are known as “row officers.” The name comes from early election ballots that listed these offices in a single row.

Sheriff

An ancient office that dates back to at least the reign of Alfred the Great (871-899), the Sheriff is responsible for serving and enforcing Court orders, injunctions, writs and judgments. The Sheriff is also responsible for providing security in the Courthouse and on county property, for transporting prisoners, for conducting real estate sales and for issuing licenses to carry concealed firearms. The Sheriff may appoint a chief deputy sheriff and additional deputies to assist with these duties. The Sheriff and deputy sheriffs may also perform various police functions and assist law enforcement officials as needed.

Tipstaff

A tipstaff assists the judge and serves as court crier. The office dates to the 1500s; in olden days a tipstaff would carry a long pole tipped with a feather that he would use to wake up individuals who fell asleep in the courtroom.

Attorneys

In Pennsylvania, lawyers must have graduated from a law school that has been accredited by the American Bar Association. They must complete an extensive background check and pass the Pennsylvania bar examination. In addition, a practicing lawyer must move for their admission to the bar. Lawyers in Pennsylvania are required to complete 12 credits of continuing legal education each year in order to maintain their license.

Attorney General

The Pennsylvania Attorney General is the Commonwealth's chief law enforcement officer. The Attorney General is specifically charged with the responsibility for the prosecution of organized crime and public corruption. The Attorney General is elected to a four-year term.

The Office of Attorney General is divided into three divisions: the Criminal Law Division, the Civil Law Division and the Public Protection division.

District Attorney

Each judicial district has a District Attorney who serves as the chief law enforcement officer for that district. District Attorneys are elected by the voters of their district to four-year terms of office. The District Attorney may appoint one or more Assistant District Attorneys; the number of Assistant District Attorneys will vary depending on the population of the county.

Legal Aid

Legal Aid provides legal representation in civil cases for individuals of limited income and for victims of domestic violence. Ten regional legal aid programs serve the Commonwealth.

Public Defender

The Public Defender provides legal assistance to persons who are charged with criminal offenses and who cannot afford the expense of hiring an attorney. Each county in Pennsylvania has one or more Public Defenders. Public Defenders are not available in civil cases. These positions are not elected; Public Defenders are appointed by the County Commissioners.

In some cases in Pennsylvania disagreements can be resolved outside the judicial system. Some state agencies have arbitrators or administrative judges who act like a court. Examples of where you might encounter an administrative judge include disagreements over unemployment benefits or utility services.

Other links:

Federal Courts

As one of the 50 states Pennsylvania also falls under the Federal Court System. Most people are familiar with the United States Supreme Court, but closer to home are the United States District Courts. District Courts hear trials and can hear most kinds of federal cases, both civil and criminal. There is at least one judicial district in each state, and together they total 94 courts.

The federal government provides two additional courts in Pennsylvania: the Court of International Trade which hears trials that are based upon customs and international trade and the Court of Federal Claims which hears cases brought by state residents against the United States. Claims against the federal government often address disagreements over federal contracts or the taking of private land for public use. More information can be found at http://www.uscourts.gov/index.html.

The 94 judicial districts also provide a United States Court of Appeals. An appeal is when there is disagreement with the finding of another court, often a “lower” court. The 94 U.S. judicial districts are organized into 12 regional circuits, each of which has a United States Court of Appeals. A Court of Appeals hears appeals from the district courts located within its circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In addition, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit has nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals of specialized cases, such as those involving patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal Claims.

The United States Supreme Court consists of a Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices. They are appointed by the President of the United States with confirmation by the U.S. Senate. This court hears a limited number of cases each year. Guidelines for accepting a case are provided by Congress. These cases often begin in state courts or other federal courts. Though their findings are based upon federal law, many cases are taken to the Supreme Court to resolve questions about or clarification of the U.S. Constitution. A good source of further information can be found at http://www.supremecourtus.gov.

How the Criminal Justice System Serves You

Though the court system is complex and unknown to most residents of Pennsylvania, they serve you if you are a victim of a crime or if you have a disagreement with another resident or with the government. However, the system serves you and provides support when you need it.

Residents need to understand their rights under the law and need to know where to find additional information. There are several circumstances where the justice system works for you. The first include civil procedures such as issuing a divorce or adopting a child. But the system also provides safety for those in danger—perhaps directly in an emergency or by keeping you safe from criminals such as stalkers.

It is important that you know how to access the system. For instance, crimes should be reported immediately and contacts can be made with lawyers, officials, and state or county agencies.

The system also keeps and shares information through a series of lists of those who break the law. This information is available to the public. You can see, for instance, if a child molester lives near you.

If you need help you can contact a local assistance program. These programs are provided by organizations (victim assistance), law schools, the local prosecutor’s office or district attorney, the bar association, or the local bar association.