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In order to simplify the Pennsylvania judicial system and courts set-up, the easiest way to do so is to imagine it in the shape of a pyramid. The most important level sits at the top of the pyramid, while the rest fan downwards in their level of importance. Let’s start at the top of the pyramid and work our way down through each of the individual courts.
The Supreme Court – Made up of 7 justices and dating back to 1684, the Supreme Court is the highest in the Commonwealth. The justices follow the Pennsylvania State Constitution and statutes known as the Judicial Code. Most of what this particular court presides over are appeals from the courts that fall lower down on the judicial pyramid.
The next two courts in the Pennsylvania judicial system pyramid are as follows:
Superior Court – This is one of two appellate courts that sit right below the Supreme Court. Established in 1895, the Superior Court is comprised of 15 different judges. Those judges – usually 3 per case - are often required to travel to different parts of Pennsylvania in order to preside over cases. The vast majority of the cases that they hear are to do with legal disputes.
Commonwealth Court – This is the second of the two appellate courts that serve the entire state. Comprised of 9 judges, the Commonwealth Court was established in 1968, with the purpose of presiding over cases that generally involve state and local governments. Cases are heard by panels of 3 judges, with said cases usually held in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, or Pittsburgh. The judges will occasionally hear cases in other state locations if it is deemed necessary.
The next court on the pyramid falls below the two appellate courts, and is as follows:
Courts of Common Pleas – These courts are comprised of 451 judges and are spread across 60 different judicial districts across the state. Most of the districts follow the county borders, with each district comprised of 1 to 93 judges. The cases that the judges hear in the Courts of Common Pleas are appeals coming from minor courts. They will also hear cases that involve children and family matters.
The most common court system in Pennsylvania sits at the bottom of the pyramid and is as follows:
Minor Courts – The vast majority of cases heard in the state of Pennsylvania will take place in the Minor Courts. These courts are actually split into three different categories, beginning with Magisterial District Courts, where a total of 527 judges preside. There are a total of 31 judges to be found in the Philadelphia Municipal Court, 27 of whom are assigned to General Division, with the other 4 situated in the Traffic Division. The final cog in this trio is the Pittsburgh Municipal Court, which is home to a total of 13 judges.
The Pennsylvania judicial system and courts may seem confusing at first glance, but when you break them down this way, it is actually pretty straightforward and easy to follow.