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Pennsylvania Courts

From the Advocacy Committee


March 11, 2024


Pennsylvania Courts, Explained


In Pennsylvania, judges are elected, not appointed. There are only 12 other states that elect all of their judges, and an additional eight that elect some of their judges. Sadly, in the so-called “off-year judicial elections,” (which was last year, in 2023), turnout is typically about 20% of registered voters, meaning that an extreme minority determines our state court judges.


It is different in the federal courts. The federal judges in Pennsylvania – the trial judges in the district courts and the appellate judges in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals – are appointed by the President and confirmed by the United States Senate. There are also federal magistrate judges who are chosen by the president judges of the district courts; they oversee arraignments, sentencings, settlements, some non-felony trials, and other matters.


There are no judicial races on the ballot this year.  But this year’s elections are a perfect example of why judicial elections matter.  There are sharp divisions in the country over abortion, the environment, the legitimacy of administrative government actions, and issues of public health and safety such as gun control and vaccines. Many of the Republican candidates on the ballot – for President, for U.S. Senate, for Congress, and for the State House and Senate-- represent extremist political views that could/will end up in litigation in our court system.


So, we thought it would be helpful for Camp Hill Democratic voters to understand how the courts are structured in Pennsylvania.


All of Pennsylvania's state courts are part of the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania. There are four levels to the Pennsylvania Court System: 


(1)     The minor courts;

(2)     The Courts of Common Pleas;

(3)     The statewide intermediate appellate courts, the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court; and


Pennsylvania's minor courts are the Magisterial District Courts (whose District Judges are sometimes called “DJs”), the Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Pittsburgh Municipal Court, and special problem-solving courtsthroughout the state, including the Veterans Courts, Adult Drug Courts, and Adult Mental Health Courts (Cumberland County has all of these, and more). In criminal matters, minor courts address preliminary hearings and setting bail (except in murder or voluntary manslaughter cases), among other things.   In civil matters, minor courts decide cases such as those involving housing or small claims.


Courts of Common Pleas are trial courts which hear both criminal and civil cases.  Sometimes these courts hear appeals in cases from the minor courts, but some cases are filed directly to the Courts of Common Pleas. Some cases before Courts of Common Pleas are heard by juries and some are heard by judges.


There are two statewide appellate courts in Pennsylvania. The Superior Court handles appeals in criminal and civil cases from the Courts of Common Pleas. The Commonwealth Court is a government law court, hearing both appeals from state agency decisions and civil actions brought by and against the Commonwealth.


The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the ultimate authority on Pennsylvania law. It hears direct appeals from lower courts' decisions and answers requests for interventions in lower courts' proceedings. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has seven members; today, five of them are Democrats.  


Another quirk of Pennsylvania government is that it has a closed primary system, which means that only voters registered as Democrats and Republicans can vote in primary elections. Pennsylvania is one of only nine states that restricts primary voting.


However, candidates for the lower courts (as well as for school board) can cross file, meaning they can appear on both parties’ ballots. There have been continual attempts to restrict cross-filing by both parties for some time now, but none have been successful.

 



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