Summary Review of Court Systems -
Structure of Civil Courts
There are four levels of Civil Courts in Pennsylvania.
The first level is comprised of the Magisterial District Courts, which are presided over by the Magisterial District Judges (MDJs). The MDJs do not have to be lawyers, but are required to pass a qualifying exam. Cases seeking damages of $12,000 or less may be filed in the Magisterial District Courts. There is a right to a de novo appeal of any decision in the Magisterial District Court to the next level of courts in Pennsylvania. These are, essentially, Pennsylvania’s “small claims” courts. In Philadelphia the role of MDJs is filled by the Philadelphia Municipal Court.
The second level of the civil court system in Pennsylvania consists of the Courts of Common Pleas, which are the general trial courts of Pennsylvania and are organized into judicial districts. Most districts follow the geographical boundaries of Pennsylvania counties, but seven of the Districts are comprised of two counties. There are 67 counties in Pennsylvania, but only 60 Courts of Common Pleas. In a handful of instances two counties comprise a single judicial district. This occurs in Pennsylvania’s rural areas where there is no need for a separate court system in both counties because of the small volume of matters being handled. Pennsylvania has 67 Counties, but 60 Judicial Districts. The number of judges in each district varies from one to 93 and depends upon the population of the district. The Courts of Common Pleas handle all types of civil claims.
The third level of the court structure in Pennsylvania consists of two statewide intermediate appellate courts. The two courts have equal authority and their jurisdiction is based upon the subject matter of the case. The Commonwealth Court hears appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas in civil matters involving government entities. For example, the Commonwealth Court hears appeals involving zoning matters because the municipal zoning hearing boards and townships are parties. The Commonwealth Court also hears appeals from the decisions of state agencies, such as permit denials by regulatory bodies. The Pennsylvania Superior Court is the other State-wide Intermediate appellate court. The Superior Court hears appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas in all civil matters to which the Government is not a party. Appeals to the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court are “as of right.”
The final level of Pennsylvania’s court system is the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Dating to 1684, it is the oldest appellate court in the nation. There are seven Justices on the Court. The Court hears appeals from both the Commonwealth Court and the Superior Court. Appeals to the Supreme Court are discretionary. Each year the Justices review over 3,000 requests for appellate review and accept less than 10% of the cases.
Basis of Jurisdiction
The jurisdiction of Magisterial District Courts is based on the amount in controversy. The Magisterial District Courts and Philadelphia Municipal Court have jurisdiction over small claims for $12,000 or less.
The Courts of Common Pleas are courts of general jurisdiction. They have exclusive jurisdiction over claims for more than $12,000. A matter involving a claim of less than $12,000 may also be filed in the Court of Common Pleas if a plaintiff so choses.
Pennsylvania has not established specialized commercial courts statewide. Certain Judicial Districts, primarily the Courts of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County and Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) have commercial tracks for cases filed in their Districts. These districts have unique local rules governing the commercial tracks. For instance, in Philadelphia the Commerce Court program provides a dedicated set of Judges and staff that handle commercial litigation matters. The extremely popular and successful program provides for a single Judge to be assigned a commercial case from start to finish, results in detailed written opinions on motion rulings and offers a dedicated group of court-annexed neutral valuators and mediators to help resolve matters before trial.
There is no statewide rule concerning mediation in Pennsylvania Civil Courts. The local rules of each judicial district differ on this issue, although many are entirely silent on it. Some judicial districts require litigants to certify that mediation was considered prior to proceeding to trial.
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