Pennsylvania’s judicial system is organized into different levels of courts, from the Magisterial District Courts all the way up to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. In Pennsylvania, all judges are elected, unless an appointment is required to fill an uncompleted term of a sitting judge who can no longer serve. District Court judges have a 6-year term and then must run for re-election. All other judges in Pennsylvania serve a 10-year term and then face a “yes” or “no” retention vote. Mandatory retirement age for judges is 70, but retired judges can be chosen to serve as senior judges.
Magisterial District Courts
In every county in Pennsylvania (except Philadelphia, which has Traffic Court and Municipal Court for minor controversies), there are Magisterial District Courts. Also known as District Justice Courts or DJ Courts, Magisterial District Courts handle a wide variety of matters including landlord/tenant disputes, small civil claims up to $12,000, traffic violations, minor criminal summary offenses, violations of ordinances and arraignments and preliminary hearings in misdemeanor and felony criminal cases. Magisterial District judges do not have to be lawyers, but our judge in Kennett, Daniel Maisano, is a practicing attorney.
Court of Common Pleas
The Common Pleas Courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction. Most counties have their own Court of Common Pleas, although a few sparsely populated counties share one with a neighbor. The Courts of Common Pleas hear trials of civil matters; Family Court cases (adoption, divorce, child custody, child support, abuse and neglect); Orphans’ Court matters including trusts and estates; criminal matters; appeals from government agencies (like zoning and other municipal appeals); and appeals from District Justice cases. Locally, the Court of Common Pleas of Chester County sits in West Chester and has 15 judges, as well as two newly elected judges joining the bench in January, Patrick Carmody and Jeffrey Sommer.
The Superior Court and Commonwealth Court
Pennsylvania has two intermediate appellate courts that hear all appeals from the Court of Common Pleas: the Superior Court, which handles general appeals, and the Commonwealth Court, which hears appeals of designated cases involving state agencies or other government issues.The Commonwealth Court also has limited jurisdiction to try certain matters.
There are 15 Superior Court judges and 9 Commonwealth Court judges. In their role as appellate courts, both the Superior Court and Commonwealth Court usually sit in three-judge panels to decide whether the trial court made any errors which impacted the outcome of a trial which require a reversal of the trial court decision or a new trial.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in Pennsylvania and hears certain appeals from the Superior and Commonwealth Courts. The Supreme Court is a court of limited jurisdiction, meaning that it is not required to hear every appeal but, instead, chooses the cases to hear based upon the importance of the issues presented. The chances of having an appeal heard by the Supreme Court are remote.Less than 1 in 10 cases are granted the opportunity to be considered. There are 7 Supreme Court justices. The Supreme Court is based in Harrisburg, but also hears cases in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the oldest court in the United States and has been hearing cases since 1722, 67 years before the United States Supreme Court was established.