“SUPERIOR AND COMMONWEALTH COURTS IN PA – “COURTS OF LAST RESORT” FOR MOST PA LITIGANTS: Part 4 of the series, “Why do we Elect Judges, and Why Should I care?” by Barbara J. Shah

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“I’m going to appeal…” How often do we hear this declaration when a litigant is disappointed in the decision by a civil court or jury, or when a defendant is convicted in a criminal case in Common Pleas Court?   The good news is that there is a court which will automatically grant the disappointed litigant or defendant the right to appeal the decision they are complaining about.  The bad news is that the chances of being successful on appeal are slim.

The court with the widest jurisdiction for appeals is the PA Superior Court, which was created by the PA Constitution in 1895.  It is the general appeals court from almost all civil and criminal cases tried by Common Pleas courts in PA, including the Orphans Court (wills, estates, guardianships, adoptions, mental health commitments, trusts, and probate issues); criminal courts (cases brought by the district attorney against individuals who are accused of breaking one or more PA laws); and Civil cases (for money damages relating to contract disputes, auto or other accidents, landlord-tenant disputes, employer-employee disputes (except for unemployment compensation cases), and most other types of disputes between individuals or corporations who reside or do business in PA.  In addition, the civil docket includes divorce, support, custody, property division and alimony, and juvenile court cases.

Anyone who is unhappy with a final verdict or judgment in Common Pleas court has the automatic right to appeal to the Superior Court; all that is necessary is to file a “Notice of Appeal” with a copy of the docket (court listing showing the outcome for that case) and pay the required fee (usually less than $300) at the Prothonotary or court clerk office for that county in which the decision was made.  There will be additional paperwork to fill out to proceed with the appeal, and once the trial court has explained the reason for its judgment or verdict, the appellant will have to file a brief (legal argument giving the reason why the trial court’s decision was not in accordance with PA law or procedure.) Then argument will be scheduled before a panel of 3 Superior Court judges (there are 18 judges in all).  Superior Court sessions are usually held in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia, but occasionally they are held in other parts of the state.

At the argument, a formal appearance before the 3-judge panel by the litigant, defendant, or his lawyer, and the opposing side (a District Attorney in criminal cases), the parties can argue ONLY matters of record, that is, testimony, evidence, and rulings made by the court on or before trial in the Common Pleas court.  This is often a surprise to the party taking the appeal – they want to put in testimony and evidence not contained in the original trial record.  Even the issue of credibility of witnesses cannot be argued, except in a few extreme cases, as the court rules specify that the trial court’s decision on credibility of witnesses cannot be disturbed on appeal.

What, then can be appealed?  Procedure, rulings on evidence or testimony, claims that the judgment or verdict was not proper under existing PA law.  Since our law consists both of what is written in our statutes AND on court rulings on these issues in prior cases on the same or similar issues, often the law is not as clear cut as it may seem.  And, unfortunately, this is an area where non-attorney litigants who try to represent themselves rarely succeed.  The legal standard for most appeals to Superior Court is “abuse of discretion,” that is, from reading the trial record and hearing the argument, the 3-judge panel finds that the trial court’s judgment or verdict is “manifestly unreasonable.”

It does happen now and again that there is a “rogue judgment” from a Common Pleas Court judge which needs to be corrected, or that a good judge has made a mistake of law. Not all appeals are rejected; however, the rate of success on appeal is poor.  In 2014, published statistics by the Superior Court indicate that 79% of the trial court decisions were affirmed, and only 13% totally reversed, with the balance some other type of disposition, such as being dismissed or partially granted.

Superior Court judges, like Common Pleas Court judges, are elected in political contests when there is a vacancy.  This year in PA, there are 4 vacancies among the 18 Superior Court positions.  Judges are elected in these partisan elections for a 10-year term, and at the end of their term face a non-partisan “yes or no” retention election to keep their seats on the bench.  Most of the candidates are unknown to the voters, who must depend on word of mouth, political party affiliation, or judicial rankings by a newspaper or local or state bar association.

Commonwealth Court, a very unique court in the U.S. state judicial system created in 1965,  is similar in almost every way to the Superior Court, except that they hear appeals from Common Pleas court cases in which the Commonwealth of PA or any of its political subdivisions, including cities, counties, townships, water districts, etc., are  litigants (other than criminal appeals); in addition they hear appeals from administrative courts such as workers compensation  and unemployment compensation decisions.  In some cases where the Commonwealth of PA itself is a litigant, Commonwealth acts as a trial level court. There are 15 Commonwealth Court judges; there are two vacancies which will be filled by voters this year.

Although it is technically possible to appeal Superior and Commonwealth Court decisions to the PA Supreme Court, the PA Supreme Court takes very few appeals, and even those almost always relate to public policy questions, rather than the facts and rulings in a specific case. This means that the “buck” literally stops with these appellate court judges. Their salaries for the year 2017 are $194,422, (most for administrative judges of these courts), along with health insurance and a defined benefit pension plan similar to that of Common Pleas Court judges, except that since their pension benefit is based partially on their final salaries, they will normally get a much larger pension than Common Pleas Court judges when they retire.

Although there have been some attempts over the years by groups trying to institute a merit selection system for appellate judges, so far, these efforts have failed to gain traction.  However, in a recent interview, one sitting PA appellate court judge indicated that with the U.S. Supreme Court “Citizens United” decision which allows huge amounts of money to pour into PA judicial races, the possibility of “stacking” our courts with judges who have strong connections to interest groups means that it is time to give merit selection greater consideration.




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