Explanation of the Different Levels of Courts

PENNSYLVANIA'S MINOR COURTS

The Minor Courts or Special Courts comprise the first level of the Unified Judicial System. The Magisterial District Judge Courts, the Philadelphia Municipal Court, the Philadelphia Traffic Court, and the Pittsburgh Municipal Court make up the Minor Courts. These courts have jurisdiction over traffic violations, landlord-tenant disputes, civil actions involving less than $12,000 and summary or minor offenses. The Minor Courts, except for the Philadelphia Municipal Court, are not courts of record. That means that if a case proceeds to the Trial Court from this level, the records do not follow and the case is treated as a new case.

Most citizens who find themselves in court come before the Minor Courts. These courts handle much of the business of everyday life that results in litigation.

MAGISTERIAL DISTRICT JUDGE COURTS

There are approximately 550 magisterial district judges, with courts located in all counties except Philadelphia. Magisterial district judges have authority to:

  • Issue arrest warrants
  • Hold preliminary arraignments in criminal cases to inform the accused of the charges and their rights 
  • Hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases to determine whether the evidence is sufficient to transfer the case to a trial court
  • Fix and accept bail except in cases involving murder or voluntary manslaughter
  • Adjudicate (resolve) cases involving summary (minor) criminal offenses, including traffic offenses
  • Adjudicate landlord-tenant matters and other civil actions in which the amount claimed does not exceed $12,000.

The magisterial district judges are elected in partisan elections for six-year terms. They do not run for retention, but may seek reelection every six years until they reach age 70, the mandatory retirement age. The magisterial district judges are not required to be lawyers, but must complete an educational course and pass a qualifying examination before they can take office. They must also complete one week of continuing education each year.

PHILADELPHIA MUNICIPAL COURT

The Philadelphia Municipal Court is the only court of record at the first level of the judicial system. Its jurisdiction is similar to that of the Magisterial District Judge Courts, except that Philadelphia Municipal Court judges also adjudicate all criminal offenses (except summary traffic offenses) punishable by a prison term of five years or less.

There are 25 Municipal Court judges, who must be lawyers. They are elected in partisan elections for six-year terms. After each term, they may stand for retention in a non-partisan yes/no election for another six-year term, until they reach age 70, the mandatory retirement age.

PHILADELPHIA TRAFFIC COURT

The Philadelphia Traffic Court's jurisdiction covers all summary offenses under the Motor Vehicle Code and any related city ordinances.

There are seven Traffic Court judges, who need not be lawyers, but must complete a certifying course and pass a qualifying exam. They are elected in partisan elections for six-year terms.  After each term, they may stand for retention in a non-partisan yes/no election for another six-year term, until they reach age 70, the mandatory retirement age.

SPECIALTY OR PROBLEM-SOLVING COURTS

In recent years, several specialty or problem-solving courts have been created to deal more efficiently and effectively with particular issues. For example, some jurisdictions have created drug courts, driving under the influence courts or mental health courts. These courts deal exclusively with a particular type of case and experiment with different kinds of sentencings and monitoring to determine whether specialized treatment is more effective in rehabilitating offenders and preventing recidivism (repeat offenses). The court system's explanation of the role and purpose of problem-solving courts is available here. For a list of problem-solving courts currently operating in Pennsylvania, click here.

TRIAL COURTS

Pennsylvania's Trial Courts are called the Courts of Common Pleas.  These courts have original jurisdiction in most serious criminal and civil cases. The Courts of Common Pleas hear appeals in cases from the Minor Courts, and also may hear appeals from decisions of certain state and local governmental agencies. In the Courts of Common Pleas, some cases are heard by juries and others are heard by judges only. Most criminal cases, trust and estate issues and family law issues (including divorce, custody, and adoption cases) come before the Trial Courts.

There are sixty judicial districts in Pennsylvania. The judicial districts generally follow the boundaries of the Commonwealth's sixty-seven counties, except that seven judicial districts each cover two counties. Each district has from one to 93 judges, and each has a president judge to oversee administrative matters.

All trial court judges are chosen in partisan elections. They serve for ten-year terms and may stand for retention in non-partisan yes/no elections for subsequent ten-year terms until they reach age 70, the mandatory retirement age.

APPELLATE COURTS

There are two levels to Pennsylvania's appellate courts: an intermediary level, consisting of the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court, and the Supreme Court, the court of last resort in the state. The justices and judges who sit on these courts are elected in statewide partisan elections for ten-year terms-- there are not seats designated on these courts for certain counties.

The Superior Court has fifteen judges who hear appeals from the trial courts in civil and criminal cases involving private parties. The Superior Court also has limited original jurisdiction over certain applications made by the attorney general and district attorneys under the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act.

The Commonwealth Court has nine judges who hear appeals from the trial courts, but in cases in which the Commonwealth or one of its agencies is a party. The Commonwealth Court's appellate jurisdiction also extends to decisions made by most state administrative agencies. The original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court includes civil actions brought against the government or one of its officers where the opposing party is seeking equitable relief or declaratory judgment, as opposed to damages; civil actions brought by the Commonwealth; and matters under the Election Code that involve statewide offices.

The  Supreme Court hears appeals from the Superior and Commonwealth Courts. It also may hear certain appeals directly from the Trial Courts, including cases involving qualifications to serve on the judiciary and cases where the Trial Courts have held statutes and rules unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court has original, but not exclusive jurisdiction over other kinds of cases, such as habeas corpus petitions and writs of mandamus, and also has exclusive jurisdiction of appeals from several administrative boards and commissions. The Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction over appeals from the Trial Courts involving the death penalty. Finally, by virtue of its extraordinary jurisdiction, the Supreme Court may assume jurisdiction of any case pending before a lower court that involves an issue of immediate public importance.

Like the United States Supreme Court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court hears and decides many fewer cases each year than the intermediary appellate courts.

The Supreme Court also is responsible for the administration of Pennsylvania’s Unified Judicial System. It fulfills this obligation through oversight of the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts (AOPC), and development and enforcement of court policies, rules and procedures.  For more information about the Supreme Court's administrative functions, visit our Administration of the Courts page.

* The information on this page is adapted with permission from "The Courts of the Commonwealth:  A Guide for Pennsylvania's Citizens", published by the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania and available by calling 1-800-692-7281 or visiting the website of the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania.