Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas
The Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas refers to the trial level courts in Pennsylvania.
While Pennsylvania has minor courts for summary offenses, small civil claims, and landlord-tenant matters, the primary courts are the Courts of Common Pleas. This is where most misdemeanor and all felony criminal cases are disposed of, where Orphan's Court matters are addressed, and where larger civil cases are originated. Family law matters, such as custody, divorce, and support are also addressed at the primary level under the supervision of the Court of Common Pleas for a county.
Pennsylvania has 67 counties and most counties contain 1 judicial district encompassing the entire county. In seven cases, a lightly populated county was combined with another county to form a single judicial district. The effect of these seven joint judicial districts is that there are sixty seven counties but only sixty judicial districts in Pennsylvania. While combined counties form a single judicial district and have one set of court rules for the judicial district, there are separate line offices for each county and each county has a courthouse and separate docketing. A Perry County civil case, for instance, would be filed in the office of the Prothonotary for Perry County, not in the office of the Prothonotary for Juniata County.
Selection of judges
Judges in Pennsylvania at the Common Pleas level can be seated as a result of an election, retention, or appointment. Elected judges are seated after competing in a primary election and a general election. They are allowed to seek party nominations. Candidates are allowed to cross-file under both major political parties. Judges are elected to 10 year terms. At the conclusion of the ninth year of a judge's term, the judge may file for retention. A retention election is a yes/no vote on whether a judge should be permitted to continue to serve as judge. Retention election losses by seated judges are exceptionally rare. Appointments to the bench may be made by the Governor in the event of a vacancy resulting from voluntary retirement, mandatory retirement, resignation, removal, death, or other reason. The appointment must be confirmed by the Senate.
Number of judges
The number of judges per judicial district is related to the population and case load of the district. There are no hard and fast criteria for adding judges. Additionally, although an additional judgeship may be approved for a judicial district, there is no requirement that a judicial district (generally a county) must fund staff or office space for the judge. A current listing of the existing judges broken down by judicial district may be found at the Administrative Office for Pennsylvania Courts.
Judicial districts are created from whole county units of government. Some counties with low population levels are joined to neighboring counties to create a single judicial district. Judicial districts are generally not referred to by number in Pennsylvania, but rather geographical area. An alphabetical listing of the sixty judicial districts follows with the primary judicial district listed first. For example, for the 39th Judicial District (encompassing Franklin and Fulton counties), Franklin County is listed first, as it is the dominant county in the judicial district.