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How Does the Pennsylvania Superior Court Work?

The Pennsylvania court system has two intermediate appellate courts: the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court. While the Commonwealth court typically hears cases involving civil charges and issues concerning the Commonwealth, the Superior court handles criminal cases, family court matters, civil cases, and appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas.

According to Title 42 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, the Pennsylvania Superior Court has original jurisdiction over certain cases. Original jurisdiction means that the court has the authority to be the first to hear a case. The Superior Court only has original jurisdiction over cases involving mandamus and prohibition of lower courts. It also has exclusive authority over specific appeals from decisions made by the courts of common pleas. The Pennsylvania Superior Court is not divided into divisions or districts, but the court may hear cases involving:

  • Criminal charges such as misdemeanors and felonies;
  • Damages, small claims, and commercial charges;
  • Class action suits;
  • Tort claims;
  • Multicounty litigations;
  • Children and family matters such as divorce, child custody, child and spousal support, cosmetic violence, juvenile issues, and adoption.

Pennsylvania Superior Court judges are appointed based on the outcome of statewide elections. There are fifteen positions on the Superior Court judges’ panel, including one President Judge, and each judge is elected to serve a ten-year term. If a judge has had a position in the Superior Court for ten years and is not 75 years old, the court will hold a retention election to decide if the judge will serve another term. To qualify to serve on the Superior Court, parties must be under 75 years old, a Pennsylvania resident for at least one year, and a state bar member.

Retirement is required when a judge gets to be 75 years old. If a judge on the Superior Court turns 75 mid-term, it is up to Pennsylvania’s governor to select a new judge by what is called a gubernatorial appointment. The governor’s selection and agreement of two-thirds of the State Senate will result in the appointment passing. An interim judge must either serve for an entire ten years or until the previous judge’s term comes to an end. Although an interim judge can run for a permanent seat, it is rare. Although a judge must retire at 75 years old, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court can approve the individual to become a Senior Judge.

Judges serving on the Pennsylvania Superior Court can face removal if an individual or entity suspects wrongful judicial conduct. Removal can be initiated by an individual and carried out by the Judicial Conduct Board. The Judicial Conduct Board is composed of eight members: two judges from the courts of common pleas, the Superior Court, or the Commonwealth Court and one justice of the peace, appointed by the Supreme Court. It also has one judge from the courts of common pleas, the Superior Court, or the Commonwealth Court, two state bar members who are not judges, and two non-lawyer electors appointed by the governor.

The board may then file charges against the judge if there is probable cause. The board handles prosecution, and the court of judicial discipline hears the arguments, reviews the evidence, and determines penalties. If a judge is convicted by the court of judicial discipline, the court will remove them, and the seat will become vacant. The house of representatives can impeach a judge. If a judge’s conduct is cause for concern, the house of representatives may file for impeachment. A judge can face impeachment with two-thirds of the Senate vote, as per Article VI, §5 of the Constitution. Voters in the state also have the power to impeach a judge.

Three Superior Court judges generally hear cases in Superior Court at a time at one of the three locations. It is also possible to have a case heard en banc by nine of the judges. The office of the Superior Court headquarters in Harrisburg is open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday through Friday. The Pennsylvania Superior Court also has two other locations in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The addresses of all Superior Court locations in Pennsylvania are as follows:

Harrisburg Office

Pennsylvania Judicial Center

601 Commonwealth Ave., Suite 1600

P. O. Box 62435

Harrisburg, PA 17106

Phone: (717) 772–1294

Philadelphia Office

530 Walnut St., Suite 315

Philadelphia, PA 19106

Phone: (215) 560–5800

Pittsburgh Office

Grant Building

310 Grant St., Suite 600

Pittsburgh, PA 15219

Phone: (412) 565–7592

The Pennsylvania Right to Know Act, also known as the Pennsylvania Sunshine Act, asserts that the state’s residents shall have the right to access court information that concerns them. The act requires individuals to submit requests to the court clerk to access records. Upon request, parties must provide a valid government-issued photo identification so the court can photocopy it. The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania is responsible for maintaining all appellate court docket sheets. Individuals can make in-person records requests at the Harrisburg office in the Pennsylvania Judicial Center. Online requests can be made through the UJS web portal. All records held in the portal database, including Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth Court filings, are free to access. The Pennsylvania Court website also offers users the option of viewing court dockets in Pennsylvania regarding the Commonwealth Court. It is necessary to fill out the appropriate public records form for records requests, both in-person and online.

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