(Infographic by Jeff Schreckengost/Pittsburgh City Paper)
(Infographic by Jeff Schreckengost/Pittsburgh City Paper)

Like many things in Pennsylvania government, our court system is complicated. Whether your legal issue is simple — say, a speeding ticket — or something more complicated, the state’s multi-tiered court system offers differing levels of access and differing forms of redress.

At the top, as with most U.S. states, is the Supreme Court. Like the U.S. Supreme Court, Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for civil and criminal cases that rise to that level of scrutiny. Recent cases include an appeal of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s impeachment, a hearing on the constitutionality of capital punishment, and several cases pertaining to redistricting.

But while the state Supreme Court is arguably the most prominent court in the commonwealth — and the one appearing first on voters’ ballots — it’s unlikely that anyone reading this will have a case heard there. Most locals’ legal journeys would begin instead in magisterial district courts.

Neighborhood justice

Forming the lowest (aka, most local) echelon of the state’s legal structure, magisterial district courts hear a wide variety of small cases ranging from property disputes to traffic violations. Pittsburghers seeking relief from an oppressive landlord or abusive partner would likely want to turn first to their local magisterial district judge. These judges are also likely to be located physically closest to most litigants.

Three key takeaways from this story:

  1. Among reasons to vote Nov. 7: The tilt of Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court could be affected.
  2. What’s the difference between the state Commonwealth Court and Superior Court? It’s a matter of who’s appealing what against whom.
  3. Pittsburghers seeking relief from an oppressive landlord or abusive partner would likely want to turn first to their local magisterial district judge, and some of them will be on the General Election ballot.

“People say magistrate court is your first level of court, but I believe it should often be your last court,” Kate Lovelace, a former public defender running to be magisterial district judge in district 05-2-31 centered in Highland Park, told Pittsburgh City Paper. (Magisterial district courts’ numerical names refer to their locations within the state’s 60 court districts. District 05 encompasses Allegheny County.)

Lovelace said magisterial district judges are locally based for much of their working week. They’re also elected by, and thus beholden to, their neighbors.

“There’s no one you feel more obligated to than the people who elected you,” she said, adding that knocking on every door in her potential district “changed [her] life.”

Lovelace said magistrates are also more likely to look at evidence in cases where a local is contesting potentially spurious charges. She recalled one example of a cell phone recording exonerating someone charged with a hefty moving violation.

“It’s people’s lives,” she said. “It’s not ‘no big deal’ to make someone lose points on their license and pay fines if you can’t prove it.”

If elected, Lovelace will, like other magisterial district judges, also spend two days per week hearing cases in Pittsburgh Municipal Court. Unlike the smaller boroughs in Allegheny County, the City of Pittsburgh has parallel court systems that complement one another. Philadelphia, ever the outlier, has its own unique municipal court structure. Between Philadelphia and the rest of the Commonwealth, there are 536 magisterial and municipal judges in the state. They are elected to six-year terms by the citizens in their district.

Pittsburgh’s magisterial municipal and municipal judges hear a variety of cases, however, most of their work consists of adjudicating traffic violations (69% of their docket). Magistrates can also settle small claims cases, officiate marriages and fix and set bail.

For more egregious criminal cases or ones appealed in municipal court, the next step up is Pennsylvania’s Court of Common Pleas.

Common pleas

Pennsylvania’s 67 counties are served by 60 courts of common pleas. These courts are the commonwealth’s major trial courts. A total of 458 judges who are elected to 10-year terms adjudicate all of the state’s major criminal cases in the common pleas courts, which vary widely in size — some jurisdictions have as many as 93 judges, while others have only one, but all are led by a president judge. Pennsylvania’s common pleas courts hear around 700,000 cases per year ranging from murder trials to custody battles.

The Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts [AOPC] notes that the common pleas courts “hear major civil and criminal cases as well as cases involving children and their families.” The common pleas courts also hear appeals to rulings from magisterial district courts and those filed by governmental agencies.

On Friday, Oct. 20 alone, there were nearly 100 cases before the Fifth Judicial District. A majority of those cases dealt with individuals involved in the Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition [ARD] program, which is usually for first-time offenders. The program offers a way for those convicted of lower-level crimes to avoid long periods of incarceration and have their records expunged.

Other cases before the court concerned parole violations, jury selection, bail or arraignments (the first step in many criminal proceedings). While a small number of cases stemmed from alleged homicides, most were less sensational, including DUIs, hit-and-runs or drug possession charges. Other cases might involve matters of estates or dealing with the legal side of adopting children. 

In short, the two lower tiers of Pennsylvania’s court system often look less like Law & Order and more like C-SPAN. However, when major cases in the common pleas courts are appealed, they can move up one level to the superior and commonwealth courts.

Two systems

The next level on the Pennsylvania judicial pyramid is split into criminal and civil components.

The highest criminal court of appeal is the Superior Court, which was established in 1895 and consists of 15 judges elected to 10-year terms. The Superior Court is the final stop for any criminal appeals and issues around 5,000 decisions per year. As the AOPC notes, this is “the appeals court for most businesses and citizens,” with thousands of motions filed and hundreds of wiretap applications every year. The Superior Court often has the final word on common pleas cases that have been appealed. 

The Superior Court judges don’t often gather together en banc — many appeals are decided through briefs alone — but judges do sometimes hear oral arguments in groups of three or in nine-judge panels convened in Philadelphia, Harrisburg or Pittsburgh.

Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Court is unique in the nation. It serves as a civil court of appeal and is relatively recent, having been added to the Pa. Constitution in 1968. Nine judges hear cases kicked up from state agencies or occasionally pertaining to nonprofit organizations. The Commonwealth Court helps establish or define governmental regulations, including those pertaining to voting.

“Anything election-related would be the Commonwealth Court,” AOPC’s director of communications Stacey Witalec said. This includes recently hot topics such as ballot box access, ballot certification, vote-by-mail and more — all topics of concern in an age of contentious elections.

If these cases are appealed, they make their ways at last to the seven justices of the state Supreme Court.

Election implications

All levels of the judicial system appear on November’s ballot. Though many seats on the common pleas bench are uncontested this year, vacancies at the Supreme Court and intermediate courts have broad implications for the state. The Commonwealth Court, currently dominated by conservatives, has one vacancy that would either entrench that majority or give liberals a greater say in civil law. 

Meanwhile, two vacancies at the Superior Court — currently split evenly between Democrats and Republicans — give Democrats a chance for a majority. Republican-affiliated candidates would need both seats to regain the edge on that bench. State Supreme Court Justice Max Baer’s death in 2022 has left a vacancy that gives Democrats the chance to maintain their 5-2 edge or Republicans a chance to head into several mandatory retirements in 2025 with only a one-seat disadvantage.

The results could make the difference between easier access to voting or tighter restrictions, as well as a host of other civil and criminal issues. Lovelace says it’s important for voters to show up and fill these vacant seats — especially the magisterial seats with the most on-the-ground perspective. Unlike the county executive, magistrates are more likely to be your neighbor and make decisions with local context in mind.

“Magistrates don’t have a lot of power,” she says, “but if you can keep your case there, it’s not as big of a deal.”   

This article was originally published by Pittsburgh City Paper, Pittsburgh’s leading alternative weekly. Read City Paper’s coverage of these elections here.

Colin Williams is news editor at Pittsburgh City Paper.

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