The Courts of Common Pleas, also referred to as trial courts, are the county courts of Pennsylvania. Each county has one except for the 7 judicial districts that include 2 counties. While it is true that Magisterial District Judges hold trials on some smaller civil and criminal cases, aggrieved litigants or defendants have a right to appeal, that is, have the matter re-heard before a judge of the Court of Common Pleas, and that hearing is “de novo,” meaning that whatever happened at the MDJ level is not considered. An appeal to the Court of Common Pleas is a” do-over.” However, there is no “do-over” once a judge of the Court of Common Pleas has entered a judgment or a verdict. It is a final order, and although appeals may be taken from Common Pleas judgments and verdicts, it is not a “do-over.” An appeals court can only reverse a common pleas judge on an error of law, a procedural mistake, or an “abuse of discretion,” meaning that no person hearing that testimony (and believing the witnesses he or she heard) should have arrived at such a decision. All witness truthfulness judgments are left to the judges. This is a very tough standard to overcome.
Statistics published by the PA Superior Court (the next level of appeals for most cases heard by Common Pleas Courts) for 2014 indicate that 79% of appeals are denied, that is, the decisions of the trial court are affirmed, and that only 13% of appeals result in a reversal. The other outcomes are cases in which appeals are withdrawn, quashed, or disposed of in another way. What this means to the litigant/defendant is that what happens to their case before a Common Pleas judge is most likely the final outcome.
Common Pleas courts have several major assignments, often split or rotated among the judges of that district, those being Orphans Court (wills, probate estates, guardianships, and adoptions), Criminal court (prosecutes crimes in the name of the Commonwealth), Family Court (divorce support, custody, and juvenile court), and Civil division (where litigants sue one another for damages, eviction, or other money remedies.) Philadelphia and Pittsburgh being the two largest population centers in PA, there are between 1 – 93 judges in PA judicial districts. (93 being of course Philadelphia), Obviously in one-judge districts, one judge wears all the “hats.”
For civil lawsuits, MDJ’s can adjudicate cases up to $12,000 worth of damages, but their decisions can be appealed to Common Pleas Courts, who have “original jurisdiction” over cases above $12,000 in damages. Millions of dollars may be at stake, or maybe a few thousand. All procedures are the same, regardless of the size of the case. (The one exception to this is that cases with claimed damages up to $40,000 are usually first heard by a panel of three “arbitrators” (lawyers who sit in panels of 3) and make a recommendation for a judgment or nonsuit. However, as in appeals from MDJ’s, either party can appeal the arbitrator’s recommendation for a “de novo” hearing before a judge.
Orphans Court judges hear cases relating to wills, alleged incapacity, termination of parental rights for adoption proceedings, probate of estates, and issues relating to trusts.
Family Court judges decides issues relating to divorce, property distribution related to divorce, spousal and child support, and child custody. They also preside over juvenile matters, from truancy to juvenile delinquency (crimes committed by children), and cases in which children may be endangered by their parents or persons in their homes.
Civil Division judges hear appeals from MDJ traffic court cases, as well as presiding over (and often trying to settle) litigation between parties, including traffic accidents, breach of contract cases, and any other sorts of cases in which one individual or corporation is seeking damages from another.
Knowing then, that Common Pleas Court judges have this much power over the lives of the citizens of their county/judicial district, who they are, how are they selected, and retained in office should be a matter of great concern to the voting public. Unlike MDJ’s, candidates for Court of Common Pleas must be lawyers admitted to practice in PA, and in good standing with the PA Supreme Court’s disciplinary system, which includes paying annual fees, maintaining malpractice insurance, and earning 12 hours of continuing legal education each year. They are elected to 10-year terms, running and Republicans or Democrats (but, as with MDJ candidates, they are permitted to cross-file, that is, run as both a Republican and a Democrat). Once elected, they do not have to run again. At the end of their 10-year terms, sitting judges are subject to a “yes or no” retention election. Since this system was established, there is over a 99% rate of retention of PA judges seeking to retain their seats. Their salaries, adjusted for the cost of living each year, are $178,868 per year for 2017, plus a generous pension system, on which they can retire as early as age 60 with 5 years or more of service, at 100% of their final salary.
How can Pa voters determine who is an appropriate candidate for Common Pleas Court? This is the subject which has created some controversy over the years. Many states select all their judges through some merit selection system, as they do for federal courts. PA elects every judicial position. In lieu of knowing all the candidates (a nearly impossible task for most voters), they are left to rely on the recommendation of their friends and neighbors, the political parties, and, hopefully, judicial candidate recommendations based on interviews conducted by a state or local bar association and publicized by them. Judicial temperament, fairness, experience, legal knowledge, and other factors which are scrutinized by their ratings should be the most influential. Political party recommendations generally reflect the political contacts or activity by a candidate, which has little to do with their qualifications for the position of Common Pleas Court judge. Sometimes the candidates with the most money who can run political TV advertising or who mail out their ads to voters will get the nod, only because the voters have seen or heard their name. Most voters who go to vote for judges feel entirely in the dark about the actual qualifications of the judicial candidates.
Obviously, it is tough to be a voter making a decision on PA Common Pleas Court judges, but given the importance of this position, and the fact that the elected candidate will probably keep that position until retirement, makes it very important.