How Do Pennsylvania Courts Work?
The judicial branch of Pennsylvania, in tandem with its executive and legislative branches, work together to ensure law and order in the state. The state's unified judicial system comprises a supreme court, two intermediate appellate courts, and several trial courts. There are also federal appellate courts which are representative of the federal judiciary in the state's judicial district.
Cases are initially heard in the trial courts. Depending on the type of matter being heard, a case may be tried at the Municipal Court, the Magisterial District Court, or the Court of Common Pleas. The Courts of Common Pleas are Pennsylvania’s general jurisdiction courts, but they typically hear cases outside the jurisdiction of the other trial courts. After a case is concluded in a trial court, any party that is unsatisfied with the judgment rendered in the case can file an appeal in the state’s intermediate appellate courts.
Appeals from judgments rendered in most criminal and civil cases are filed with the Superior Court of Pennsylvania, while appeals from cases involving state agencies are filed with the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. Appellate courts generally make decisions by reviewing the court records of trial courts, reviewing briefs submitted by the appealing parties, and listening to oral arguments presented by these parties.
When the Superior Court of Pennsylvania or the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issues a decision on an appeal case brought before it, this decision can be further appealed by an unsatisfied party to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. This court has discretionary jurisdiction over most matters brought before it. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the highest court in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania and decisions reached in this court can only be appealed at a federal level.
Decisions and judgments in the Pennsylvania court system are issued by judges and justices. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has seven justices. The Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania have 15 and nine judges respectively, while the state’s trial courts have over 950 judges. Justices and judges of the appellate courts and the Courts of Common Pleas serve 10-year terms and are selected through retention elections, while judges in the Magisterial District and the Municipal Courts serve six-year terms and are selected through competitive elections. Pennsylvania justices and judges can serve as many terms in office as possible before they reach the mandatory retirement age of 75. With the exception of Magisterial District Court judges, all justices and judges elected in Pennsylvania are required to be members of the state's bar association.
All state and federal courts in the jurisdiction operate an administrative office that maintains Pennsylvania court records generated in the course of the court's judicial proceedings.
What is the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania?
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the highest court in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. This court consists of seven justices that have administrative and judicial responsibilities, which include overseeing, creating, and enforcing the rules of procedure for all courts in the state. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania also has original appellate jurisdiction over all types of cases filed in the state. Appeals to this court are typically initiated from any of the state’s intermediate appellate courts. However, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania may also accept petitions for an appeal directly from a Court of Common Pleas. This usually happens in matters involving the death penalty and state statutes or rules. Any decision reached by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is considered final. Supreme courts are typically overseen by several Supreme court justices and one Chief Justice.
Superior Court of Pennsylvania
The Superior Court of Pennsylvania is one of the two intermediate appellate courts in the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. This court has appellate jurisdiction over all criminal cases and most civil cases, including matters involving families and children, filed in the state. The Superior Court of Pennsylvania consists of 15 judges that review cases in panels of three judges or an en banc panel of nine judges. Decisions reached by this court may be appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. However, in most cases, the Supreme Court denies petitions for appeals. As a result of this, the decision rendered by the Superior Court of Pennsylvania is usually the final decision in a case.
What is the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania?
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania is the second intermediate appellate court in the Pennsylvania court system, and it consists of nine judges that hear cases alone, in panels of three judges, or in en banc panels of seven judges. The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania has appellate jurisdiction over all matters that involve state agencies. This court also has original jurisdiction over civil actions brought by or against the Commonwealth government, and certain election matters. This means that the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania is authorized to try these types of cases. Appeals from decisions rendered in the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania are made to the state’s Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas
The Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas are the state’s general jurisdiction trial courts. These courts have unlimited original jurisdiction over all criminal and civil matters heard in the state of Pennsylvania. The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania is divided into 60 judicial districts and each of these districts has at least one Court of Common Pleas. These courts each have an Orphan's Court Division that specializes in probate matters and matters involving adoption and termination of parental rights. In addition to trying cases, the Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas also hear appeals from final orders issued in lower courts in the state, as well as appeals from final orders in certain cases involving governmental agencies.
Pennsylvania Magisterial District Courts
Magisterial District Courts in the State of Pennsylvania are considered minor trial courts. These courts have limited jurisdiction over certain criminal and civil matters. These matters include summary offenses, small claims matters that do not involve more than $12,000, and preliminary hearings for criminal cases. Judges in Magisterial District Courts are the only judges in the Unified Judiciary System of Pennsylvania that are not required to be lawyers.
Philadelphia Municipal Court in Pennsylvania
The Philadelphia Municipal Court is a limited jurisdiction trial court in the State of Pennsylvania. This court is considered a minor court, and the types of cases it hears include small claims matters involving not more than $12,000, real estate and school tax cases involving not more than $15,000, and criminal offenses that are punishable by a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment.
Pittsburgh Municipal Court in Pennsylvania
The Pittsburgh Municipal Court is a trial court in the Pennsylvania court system that has limited jurisdiction over certain types of matters filed in the City of Pittsburgh. This includes traffic offenses, non-traffic summary offenses, ordinance violations, and preliminary hearings on all misdemeanor and felony criminal cases that occur within the city. Also, the Pittsburgh Municipal Court has jurisdiction over preliminary hearings on all homicide cases that occur in Allegheny County.
What are Appeals and Court Limits in Pennsylvania?
In the Pennsylvania court system, an appeal refers to a request made by a party involved in a case to have a judgment or decision issued by a lower court reviewed by a higher court. Even though the Court of Common Pleas is a trial court, it has appellate jurisdiction over final orders issued by the other lower courts and some state agencies, and most appeals made to the state’s intermediate appellate courts are typically initiated from a Court of Common Pleas.
When an appeal is filed in a Pennsylvania appellate court, the case is not tried afresh. Instead, the appellate court reviews the proceedings of the lower courts to make sure that an error was not made in the court’s interpretation of the law. Appellate courts also review briefs and listen to oral arguments presented by appealing parties.
Appeals from criminal and civil cases are made to the Superior Court while matters that involve state administrative agencies are appealed to the Commonwealth Court. The Superior Court consists of 15 judges that hear cases either in three-judge panels or in a nine-judge en banc panel. The Commonwealth Court consists of nine judges, and cases can be heard by a single judge, three-judge panels, or seven-judge en banc panels.
In most cases, the appellate process ends at the intermediate appellate court. However, a further appeal can be made to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which is the court of last resort in the state’s court system. With the exception of death penalty cases, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has the right to accept or refuse most petitions for appeals made to it. When deciding whether or not to accept a case, the Supreme Court considers the following factors:
- If the decision reached by the intermediate appellate court in the case conflicts with a decision reached by either the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania or the United States Supreme Court on the same legal question
- If the matter involves the constitutionality of a state statute
- If the decision reached by the intermediate appellate court in the case conflicts with another intermediate court’s opinion
- If the question presented by the case is one of first impression
- If the question presented by the case is one of great substantial importance that it warrants a prompt and definitive response from the Supreme Court
- If the intermediate court departed from accepted judicial practices or abused its discretion in a manner that requires the Supreme Court to exercise its supervisory authority
- If the intermediate court erroneously entered an order that quashed or dismissed an appeal
If the Supreme Court denies a petition for an appeal, then the decision reached by the Superior Court or the Commonwealth Court in the case is considered final. However, if the Supreme Court grants the petition, then the decision it reaches is considered the final decision in the case.
Appeals filed in the State of Pennsylvania must be done within a particular timeframe. This timeframe is based on the matter that is being appealed, the type of appeal, and when the decision in the case was issued. Generally, most appeals must be filed not later than 30 days after a final order has been entered in a case. However, the following types of appeals must be filed much sooner than other:
- Cross appeals must be filed not later than 14 days after the date the first notice of appeal was filed
- Appeals from orders changing the venue or venire in a criminal proceeding must be filed not later than 10 days after the entry of the order was taken
- Appeals from orders in matters arising from the Pennsylvania Local Government Unit Debt Act or other similar statutes must be filed not later than 10 days after the entry of the order was taken
- Appeals from matters arising from the Pennsylvania Election Code must be filed not later than 10 days after the entry of the order was taken
How Do I Find My Case Number in Pennsylvania?
The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania assigns a unique tracking number to a case filed in a Pennsylvania court. This number is known as a docket number. Docket numbers typically include numbers and letters that indicate the type of matter that was filed, when the matter was filed, and the type of court where it was filed.
It is important to know the docket number when trying to locate a Pennsylvania court record, as this facilitates the record search. However, in situations where the docket number is not known, interested parties can find this number and access court records using the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania’s case information web portal. This portal allows members of the public to access public docket sheets for free. Note that a docket number can only be obtained by providing other details of the case such as the names of the participants involved or the offender tracking number for criminal cases.
Does Pennsylvania Hold Remote Trials?
Court proceedings can be held remotely in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. On the 18th of March, 2020, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania issued an order that closed all courts in the state to the public. This order was issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it authorized the various courts in the state to come up with appropriate safety measures to safeguard the health and safety of court personnel, court users, and members of the public on a district-by-district basis. Under this order, the use of advanced communication technology was specifically authorized and encouraged for the conduction of court proceedings.
Even though the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has since directed courts to open to their general judicial activities, individual courts are still empowered to do the following:
- Suspend any statewide rules that restrict the use of advanced communication technologies
- Limit in-person court proceedings and in-person access to courts
In addition, most courts in Pennsylvania allow members of the public to remotely access some of their judicial proceedings. For example, the courts in the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania provide interested parties with access to live streams of its courtroom proceedings.