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The Pennsylvania Court System, How It Works

Pennsylvania Court System

Pennsylvania has a system of courts that handle all sorts of legal matters. It is a multi-tiered system that handles the simplest legal disputes to multi-billion-dollar civil lawsuits to the most serious criminal cases. This article will outline the Pennsylvania court system.

More information about the Pennsylvania judicial system can be obtained at the official website of the Pennsylvania Courts, the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

Magisterial District Courts

There are hundreds of Magisterial Courts throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, including 17 of them in Luzerne County. These minor courts are presided over by Magisterial District Judge, who are elected to six-year terms by the people of their districts.

The Magisterial Courts are the first level of courts in Pennsylvania. Their jurisdiction includes any civil legal disputes involving $8000.00 or less in damages. They also handle landlord/tenant matters, minor traffic offenses, summary criminal offenses, and preliminary hearings in misdemeanor and felony cases.

Magisterial District courts are not “courts of record,” therefore, any decisions of the Magisterial District judges are such as “de novo” review by the Court of Common Pleas. In layman’s terms, this means that one who pursues a matter in the Magisterial District courts and is dissatisfied with the outcome is entitled to a new hearing at the Court of Common Pleas level.

Unlike all the other levels of courts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Magisterial District Judges need not hold a law degree, and in fact, most are not lawyers. Only three of the 17 Magisterial District judges in Luzerne County are lawyers.

Court of Common Pleas

The next level of courts in Pennsylvania is the Court of Common Pleas, commonly referred to as County Court. Common Pleas Court Judges preside over all matters at this level. They are elected to 10-year terms by the residents of the respective counties. Luzerne County is authorized to have 10 Common Pleas Court judges.

Once elected to a 10-year term, these judges may serve until the end of the year in which they turn 70 years old. At the end of their 10-year term, they can seek retention to another 10-year term. Retention requires the judge to have his or her name placed on the ballot, wherein voters are asked a simple yes/no question as to whether the judge should remain for another 10-year term.

The Court of Common Pleas handles all civil matters over $8000.00, appeals from the magisterial district courts, all misdemeanor and felony criminal cases, injunctive relief, zoning appeals, and a number of other matters. The Court of Common Pleas is considered a trial court. If one is called to jury duty (with the exception of grand juries,) they will report to the county courthouse for a trial to be conducted by a Common Pleas Court Judge.

Commonwealth Court

According to the official site of the Pennsylvania Courts, the Commonwealth Court is one of Pennsylvania’s two statewide intermediate appellate courts. This court, which was established in 1968, is unlike any other state court in the nation. Its jurisdiction generally is limited to legal matters involving state and local government and regulatory agencies.

Litigation typically focuses on such subjects as banking, insurance and utility regulation and laws affecting taxation, land use, elections, labor practices and workers compensation. Commonwealth Court also acts as a court of original jurisdiction, or a trial court, when lawsuits are filed by or against the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth Court is made up of nine judges who serve 10-year terms. The president judge is chosen by his or her colleagues for a five-year term. The court generally decides cases in three-judge panels and sits in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh.

Superior Court

According to the official website of the Pennsylvania Courts, the Superior Court is one of Pennsylvania’s two statewide intermediate appellate courts. This court, which was established in 1895, reviews most of the civil and criminal cases that are appealed from the Courts of Common Pleas in the Commonwealth’s 67 counties. The Superior Court consists of 15 judges who serve 10-year terms. The president judge of Superior Court is elected to a five-year term by his or her colleagues.

A huge volume of appeals flows to Superior Court from the trial courts. Generally, appeals are heard by panels of three judges sitting in Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Pittsburgh. The court often is the final arbiter of legal disputes. Although the Supreme Court may grant a petition for review of a Superior Court decision, most such petitions are denied and the ruling of the Superior Court stands.

Supreme Court

The highest level court in Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. According to the official website of the Pennsylvania Courts, The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the highest court in the Commonwealth. It is also the oldest appellate court in the nation, dating to 1684. The court makes final interpretations of state law and has administrative authority over the entire Pennsylvania court system. Seven justices make up the court. They are elected to 10-year terms. The longest-serving member of the court presides as chief justice. The court holds sessions in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh.

The Supreme Court receives about 2,500 civil and criminal appeals each year. It has the discretionary power to hear and decide only those cases that it deems to have statewide importance or to require clarification on a point of law. The court must review certain types of cases such as all death penalty cases and appeals from lawsuits that originate in Commonwealth Court. The Supreme Court also can take up any case in any court in Pennsylvania if it considers an issue of immediate public importance to be at stake. When it does this, the court exercises one of two powers known as the “King’s Bench” power or the power of “extraordinary jurisdiction.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the final say on interpreting the Pennsylvania Constitution and Pennsylvania laws. The exception to this rule is if a matter involves a federal right, the decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can be appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States.

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