Thursday, April 2, 2015

The structure of the PA court system

Former MDJ Whitesell* of Mountainhome, PA, who retired last year, would often offer an impromptu description of the PA Court system to litigants waiting in his courtroom when the parties weren't ready to proceed or when attorneys were outside the courtroom making last minute negotiations. His 15 minute primer on the system was a comfortable way to introduce laymen to the process and probably eased a lot of stress. I don't know if it was ever recorded but it should have been and offered for viewing in primary schools.

Taking the cue from him, the Court system breaks down with the MDJ Courts (Magisterial District Courts) forming the first order of Courts where a litigant (whether civil or criminal in nature) enters the justice system. Civil cases with relatively low-dollar value claims start here, as do almost all criminal cases for a preliminary hearing. MDJ Courts are not a court of record, meaning no official court reporter appears to keep track of what everyone says, but it is not uncommon to find one hired by either party to appear.

Should the case not be resolved at the MDJ level it proceeds to the Court of Common Pleas. Here is where civil cases seeking significant monetary awards start, and where appeals from MDJ civil cases proceed. Criminal cases that were bound over also appear here. Almost all Family Law cases begin at the Court of Common Pleas.This is where parties are often entitled to a jury trial, although in some cases there are mandatory arbitration civil cases and some criminal cases are bench trials - meaning the Judge takes the place of the Jury in addition to his/her normal role.

Should either party be dissatisfied with the result at the Court of Common Pleas the case proceeds to an appellate court. This gets somewhat complicated  as there are actually two different branches of appellate courts. The first is the Superior Court, this is where most appeals are directed to. Criminal appeals, civil cases involving individuals, and many other types of cases are directed here. The second is the Commonwealth Court, this is where only specialized types of appeals are directed to. For example, cases involving actions against or by government agencies go here. More on this specialized court at a later date.

Finally, there is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Appeals from either the Superior Court or the Commonwealth Court wind up here. Unlike the lower appellate courts, however, one must first ask permission to get to the Supreme Court. Generally the case has to involve a novel matter that hasn't been previously litigated in Pennsylvania for the Court to hear the case.

In some cases the matter can be further appealed to the federal level, which is a topic for another day as this is quite rare.


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