Judiciary of Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the state supreme court and court of last resort. The intermediate appellate courts in Pennsylvania are the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (for matters involving state agencies) and the Superior Court of Pennsylvania (for all other appeals).

Judges

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court justices are elected to ten year terms. Supreme Court judicial candidates may run on party tickets. After the ten-year term expires, a statewide YES/NO vote for retention is conducted. If the judge is retained, he/she serves another ten-year term. If the judge is not retained, the Governor—subject to the approval of the State Senate—appoints a temporary replacement until a special election can be held.

Judicial candidates may now express political viewpoints as long as they do not “commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court.”

Justices must step down from the Supreme Court when they reach the age of 70, although they may continue to serve part-time as “senior justices” on panels of the Commonwealth’s lower appellate courts until they reach 78, the age of mandatory retirement.

Commonwealth Court

The Commonwealth Court was established in 1968 and is unique to Pennsylvania. It is one of Pennsylvania’s two statewide intermediate appellate courts. The Commonwealth Court is primarily responsible for matters involving state and local governments and regulatory agencies. It also acts as a trial court when lawsuits are filed by or against the Commonwealth. Cases are generally heard by panels of three judges in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, although, on occasion, they may choose to hold court in other locations. Cases may also be heard by a single judge or by en banc panels of seven judges.

responsible for

  • Original civil actions brought by and against the Commonwealth
  • Appeals from decisions made by state agencies and the Courts of Common Pleas

Superior Court

The Superior Court was established in 1895. It is one of Pennsylvania’s two statewide intermediate appellate courts. The Superior Court is often the final arbiter of legal disputes. The Supreme Court may grant a petition to review a decision of the Superior Court, but most petitions are denied and the ruling of the Superior Court stands. Cases are usually heard by panels of three judges sitting in Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Pittsburgh, but may also be heard en banc by nine judges. The Superior Court often travels to locations throughout Pennsylvania to hear cases.

responsible for

  • Appeals in criminal and most civil cases from the Courts of Common Pleas
  • Appeals on matters involving children and families

Supreme Court

Dating to 1684, the Supreme Court is the highest court in the Commonwealth and the oldest appellate court in the nation. The Supreme Court’s administrative powers and jurisdictional responsibilities are vested with the seven-member court by the Pennsylvania State Constitution and a collection of statutes known as the Judicial Code. Administratively, the courts within the Unified Judicial System are largely responsible for organizing their own staff and dockets; however, the Supreme Court has several committees and boards responsible for writing and enforcing rules for judges, attorneys, and litigants to ensure an efficient and fair judicial review.

Annually, the seven justices receive over 3,000 requests for appellate review.

Most often,
but not exclusively,
the Court reviews:

  • Requests for discretionary appeals from the Commonwealth Court and Superior Court
  • Direct Appeals from a lower court’s decision, including when a sentence of death is issued
  • Requests to intervene in a lower court’s proceedings
  • Requests to deliver a body from illegal detention