THE JUDICIAL BRANCH
The Judicial Branch of Pennsylvania is the system of courts that interprets and applies the law to court cases within the state. Its purpose is to resolve disputes within the state regarding the constitutionality of the law, small claims, and other conflicts between cities or citizens. Each level of the judicial system is meant to check the powers of the legislative branch and resolve disputes. However, the Pennsylvania judicial system is unique in its organization of courts. The following diagram depicts the Pennsylvania Court System:
In Pennsylvania, the minor courts are separated into two categories: Municipal Courts and Magisterial District Courts. Generally, the Municipal Courts operate within a large city and hear violations of city ordinances and traffic offenses. In Pennsylvania, the two largest cities have Municipal Courts; Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. However, Philadelphia divides the typical jurisdiction of a Municipal Court, traffic offenses are heard in Traffic Court. Magisterial District Courts serve the same purpose as Municipal Courts, but in a smaller area. They have jurisdiction throughout the county and hear small claims and traffic violations. They also decide if a criminal or civil case is serious enough to be processed in the Court of Common Pleas.
Common Pleas Courts
The Courts of Common Pleas are the general trial courts of Pennsylvania. They process major civil and criminal cases within their jurisdiction. Generally, the jurisdiction of a Common Pleas Court is confined within geographic boundaries, but some courts are comprised of more than one county. They also process appeals from minor courts and any cases involving families and children.
The Commonwealth Court is one of two statewide intermediate appellate courts and is unique to Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth Court is primarily responsible for matters involving state and local governments and regulatory agencies, but can also act as a trial court when the state of Pennsylvania or a city therein are involved. Commonwealth Court cases are heard by three judges, with location shifting between Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. In rare occurrences, the Court can be held in a different city, or a single judge may hear a trial. The court may also process appeals from decisions made by state agencies and the Courts of Common Pleas.
The Superior Court is one of Pennsylvania's two statewide intermediate appellate courts. The Superior Court is often the final arbiter of legal disputes. The Supreme Court may grant a petition to review a decision of the Superior Court, but most petitions are denied, and the ruling of the Superior Court stands. Cases are usually heard by panels of three judges sitting in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg. The Superior Court often travels to locations throughout Pennsylvania to hear cases.
The Supreme Court is the highest court in the Commonwealth and the oldest appellate court in the nation. The Supreme Court’s administrative power and jurisdictional responsibilities are vested to the seven-member court by the Pennsylvania State Constitution and a collection of statutes known as the Judicial Code. The Term is divided between "sittings," when the Justices hear cases and deliver opinions, the intervening "recesses," when they consider the business before the Court and write opinions. With rare exceptions, each side is allowed a 30-minute argument. Since the majority of cases involve the review of a decision by some other court, there is no jury, and no witnesses are heard.