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How Does The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Work?

The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court is one of two intermediate appellate courts in the state. This court also serves as a trial court for hearing lawsuits. Generally, the Commonwealth court hears matters regarding local and state government agencies and public authorities or regulatory agencies. The duration of a Commonwealth Court case depends on the type of case and can range from a few days to many months.

According to the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article V § 3 42 and § 541–44, the Commonwealth Court has jurisdiction over appeals from specific local and state government agencies and public authorities or regulatory agencies, notably the Courts of Common Pleas. Cases from the Courts of Common Pleas involve civic or public sector issues concerning spending and regulation. Generally, any cases in Pennsylvania involving state-run agencies, non-profit agencies, or private corporations will be heard by the Commonwealth Court. Also, non-criminal or civil instances in which charges have been brought against the Commonwealth or filed by the Commonwealth fall under the Commonwealth Court’s jurisdiction.

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania is an appellate court, and it hears appeals from the Court of Common Pleas’s decisions. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania hears appeals from decisions made by the Commonwealth Court. Whereas most appellate courts only review decisions made by a lower court, the Commonwealth Court also has what is referred to as original jurisdiction, meaning that it has the authority to be the first court to hear a case.

Examples of issues the Commonwealth Court may listen to are matters involving:

  • Banking
  • Insurance
  • Regulation of utilities
  • Taxation appeals
  • Land use
  • Elections
  • Labor operations
  • Workers compensation
  • Decisions from the Department of Transportation
  • Liquor Control Board rulings regarding licensing
  • Writs of Mandamus

Ten judges serve on the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania, including a President Judge and a Senior Judge. A president judge is elected for five-year terms by their colleagues. Generally, Commonwealth Court hearings are headed by three judges at a time. Commonwealth Court judges are elected by nonpartisan elections, meaning that candidates do not have to run under a specific political party. Judges are elected to serve ten-year terms and are required to retire at the age of 75. There are specific general qualifications that an individual must have to serve on the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Persons must be a citizen or resident of Pennsylvania for at least one year, be a member of the state bar, and be under the age of 75.

If a judge serves the ten-year term and is not yet 75 years old, the court will hold a retention election. This election will decide if the party will remain on the judge’s panel for another ten years or be removed. If there is an interim, or temporary, opening on the judge’s panel, Pennsylvania judicial officials will fill the opening using a gubernatorial appointment. A gubernatorial appointment means the Pennsylvania governor appoints the party serving the vacancy. For the selection to pass, two-thirds of the Pennsylvania Senate must consent. Judges who have a seat due to a gubernatorial appointment must serve a ten-year term or serve until the original judge’s period ends. It is possible that an interim Commonwealth Court judge can run for a permanent seat, but it is not common.

There is also the possibility that a Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court judge can face removal. This removal can happen in two ways. The court of judicial discipline, which hears cases regarding court officials’ judicial conduct, may file charges against the judge and remove the judge if the party is found guilty. The representative house also holds the power to impeach a judge if there is cause for concern on the judge’s conduct. Impeachment of a judge by the house of representatives required two-thirds of the Senate to consent.

Parties must make all Commonwealth Court filings in the Court Prothonotary’s filing office in Harrisburg, where the headquarters are located. The office is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Friday. The Commonwealth Court also has two other locations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The address of the Commonwealth Court headquarters is as follows:

Pennsylvania Judicial Center

601 Commonwealth Ave.

Suite 2100

P. O. Box 69185

Harrisburg, PA 17106

Phone: (717) 255–1650

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case records can be accessed in-person or online. Parties can visit the Commonwealth Court Prothonotary’s office in Harrisburg and obtain a request form from the clerk to request records in-person. For online access, parties can search for and get specific information from a court case by visiting the UJS web portal. This portal is free to access appellate court case information, including Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Court filings. The Pennsylvania Court website also offers users the option of viewing court dockets in Pennsylvania regarding the Commonwealth Court. The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania is responsible for maintaining all appellate court docket sheets.

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