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What To Know About Pennsylvania's Court System And The 2017 Judicial Races

Pennsylvania Courts
There are more than 1,000 judges in the Pennsylvania court system.

Across Pennsylvania Tuesday, voters will choose judges and justices in a total of 370 races at all levels of the state court system.


Many voters find it challenging to choose which judicial candidates to support, according to Maureen Lally-Green, a former judge on the Pennsylvania Superior Court and the dean of Duquesne School of Law.


“Very few voters are ever involved in the criminal process,” she observed. “They’re not involved in the civil process. They’ve just never been to court.”


There are two types of judicial elections: partisan and retention.


In retention elections, voters simply decide whether a sitting judge or justice whose term is about to expire should stay on the bench for another 10-year term. Judges don't have opponents in these elections.


In competitive races for new judges, voters often have little basis for deciding who will make the better choice, said MaidaMilone, President and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.


“I think, more often than not, they either choose based on party affiliation or on recognition of someone’s name, or the first four people who are on the ballot,” Milone said.


There are ways to learn more about judicial candidates. Milone’s organization posts a broad array of resources on its website, and the state and local Bar Associations rate candidates based on their qualifications.


So, what should voters be looking for?


"It's really important to make sure that these are people who will apply the law even-handedly, that you can count on them having the highest integrity and dealing fairly with people who come before them," Milone said.


In recent years, a litany of scandals involving Pennsylvania judges, Milone added, have underscored just how important these considerations are.


Statewide courts

Another thing to weigh is what the individual courts actually do.


Generally speaking, there are five different types of courts in Pennsylvania. Three of them – the Supreme Court, Commonwealth Court and Superior Court – are statewide courts.


The Supreme Court is at the top of the system. Milone called it the court of last resort and said, “That is where appeals go after they have gone through the intermediate appellate courts.”


Those courts are the other two statewide courts, the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court. Both hear appeals, but the Commonwealth Court is unique to Pennsylvania.


“The Commonwealth Court was created because there were all of these cases that dealt with state agencies and actions against the Commonwealth,” explained Hal Coffey, President of the Allegheny County Bar Association.


In addition to appeals, the Commonwealth Court also hears new civil actions against the state.


For example, when the League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania brought a gerrymandering case against the state in June, it filed in the Commonwealth Court. The lawsuit alleges that, during the 2011 redistricting process, state lawmakers drew Pennsylvania's congressional map to give the Republican Party an unfair advantage at the polls.


The Superior Court handles all of the appeals that don't fall within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court. Lally-Green, who served on the Superior Court for 11 years, calls it “the people’s appellate court.”


“This is the court that hears all the appeals dealing with the personal side of life,” she said.


Those matters include criminal and civil cases, ranging from personal injury, contract and custody disputes to technical constitutional questions.


Regional and local courts

Cases come to the Superior and Commonwealth Courts from Courts of Common Pleas,the fourth type of court in Pennsylvania. Common pleas courts are regional courts that serve one or two counties. They’re where trials take place, and judges are assigned to specialized divisions.


Divisions include civil, criminal, family and orphans’ court and are helpful to consider in the voting booth, according to Coffey.


“One of the things that I’m looking for is, if it’s a new judge, [that the candidate has] some sort of understanding of family or criminal [law] because they’ll most likely start off in those divisions,” Coffey said. “But of course, we still need good Civil Division judges as well.”


Finally, magisterial district courts are at the bottom of Pennsylvania’s judicial hierarchy. These courts handle traffic citations, neighbor disputes, and preliminary criminal proceedings among other matters.


Magisterial district judges aren't required to be attorneys, which is why the Allegheny County Bar Association does not rate candidates for magisterial district judge, according to Coffey. The organization evaluates candidates based on their legal qualifications.


Magisterial district courts, Coffey noted, are where most people go when they have a court date.


“Most voters don’t appear before a judge at the Court of Common Pleas or the intermediate courts or the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” he said. “However, I think more people definitely have interaction with the minor courts, which is the magisterial district judges.”


Regardless of their interactions with the courts, on Nov. 7 voters get to play a key role in shaping the direction of the state's judiciary.