State and Federal Courts of Pennsylvania
Legal Methods and Process
State and Federal Courts of Pennsylvania
There are four levels of state courts in Pennsylvania (PA). The first level is the minor courts which are presided over by magisterial district judges (MDJs) and municipal court judges. MDJs do not need to be lawyers, but they do need to pass a qualifying exam (Pacourts.us, n.d.). At this first level, individuals will have their first appearances, preliminary hearings, preliminary arraignments, and setting of bail if a bailable offense to decide if enough evidence and/or seriousness of the crime can be sent to the next level of the state courts system. The Court of Common Pleas is the next level and the court as to where cases were bound over for court at the magisterial/minor court level. These courts are organized into 60 jurisdictional districts with most districts following “geographical boundaries of counties”, with seven sharing two counties (Pacourts.us., n.d.). Each district has a president judge and a court administrator, as well as each district having one to 93 judges. Common Pleas Courts are the trial courts of PA, hearing of appeals from other courts are done at this level as well. If an appeal is not assigned to another court, it will be heard in the Common Pleas Court and any cases involving children and/or family are also held in this level of PA state courts. The third state court level of PA is shared by the Superior Court and the Commonwealth Court. The Superior Court is the last and final arbiter of legal disputes. There is a panel of three judges presiding over the cases at this level and located in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh, however, the Superior Court often travels throughout PA to hear cases (Pacourts.us., n.d.). The Superior Court is responsible for the matters of appeals from criminal and/or civil cases from the Court of Common Pleas, and also cases involving children and family appeals. The Commonwealth Court was established in 1968 and is distinctive to PA. This court level hears matters that involve state and local governments and regulating agencies throughout PA. However, if the state government (the Commonwealth) files a lawsuit or is pending a lawsuit against the state, these trials will be matters under the Commonwealth Court.
The federal court system of PA is broken up into districts, the Eastern, Western, and Middle Districts. The Eastern District has jurisdiction over nine PA counties, has 37 sitting judges, five bankruptcy court judges, 11 magisterial judges in the home district of Philadelphia. The Philadelphia federal courthouse is also the location of the Third Circuit Court of Appeals (United States Department of Justice., n.d.). With Philadelphia being the largest city in this district, the other eight counties include Berks, Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Lancaster, Lehigh, Northampton, and Montgomery. The Middle District has jurisdiction over 33 counties throughout the PA cities of Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Lebanon, Carlisle, Harrisburg, Williamsport, and State College (United States Department of Justice, n.d.). There are 13 U.S. District Judges and five U.S. Magistrate Judges in this District, as well as, U.S. Bankruptcy Courts located in Wilkes-Barre and Harrisburg. The Western District counties include Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Bedford, Butler, Blair, Cambria, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Somerset, Venango, Warren, Washington, and Westmoreland. Pittsburgh, Erie, and Johnstown are the PA cities where the Federal Courthouses are located (Usmarshals.gov., n.d.). Jurisdiction would be determined by the county in which the crime was committed and/or appealed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court hears all matters of appeals as the final say by the courts regardless if a case was a state case or a federal case.
In a case involving a rental agreement/lease and the landlord initiating eviction proceedings against me by falsely accusing me of giving my notice of intent to not renew my lease, this would a matter of the state courts in PA. A civil suit filed in a small claims court or a private criminal complaint (PCC) filed in the District Attorney’s (DA) office.
Per Northwestern Legal Services, any landlord that wishes to evict a tenant that did not voluntarily move in response to the landlord’s demand must file a “Landlord/Tenant Complaint” (2001-2019). The constable or sheriff’s office will serve the tenant with a notice informing them of the date and time of the scheduled hearing on the case. However, if a landlord is seeking back rent payment and is not wishing to evict the tenant, a “Civil Complaint” would need to be filed instead of the “Landlord/Tenant Complaint” (Northwestern., 2001-2019). Furthermore, in a case of a tenant being falsely accused of verbally informing a landlord of the intent to not renew their lease, a “counterclaim” can be filed by the tenant. If the complaint filed was a “Civil Complaint”, the tenant is required to notify the assigned magistrate judge of the receipt of the complaint as soon as it is received within five days of the set hearing date (Northwestern., 2001-2019). In cases of a tenant wishing to file a counterclaim, the tenant must take the Civil Complaint to the Magisterial District Judge at least five days prior to said hearing. At the hearing, the magistrate will hear both claims and make a ruling on the issue(s) as deemed appropriate.
Human trafficking is handled by the United States Department of Justice (USDOJ) listed in Title 18, Chapter 77 of the U.S. statute, as well as the Civil Rights division working with the U.S. Attorney’s Office (USAO) being they are viewed as “involuntary servitude” (USDOJ., 2018). This would be federal charge(s) being brought against the perpetrators and would be handled in the federal court system in the Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit (HTPU).
Northwestern Legal Services., (2001-2019). PaLawHelp.org. Magisterial District Judge Court-Defense. Retrieved from
Pacourts.us., (n.d.). The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania., Learn: The Pennsylvania Court System is Structured Like a Pyramid with the Supreme Court at the Top. Retrieved from
USDOJ., (2018, October 18). Human Trafficking Prosecution Unit. Retrieved from
Usmarshals.gov., (n.d.). U.S. Marshals Service. Western District of Pennsylvania Service Area. Retrieved from
United States Department of Justice., (n.d.). The United States Attorney’s Office. Eastern District of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from
United States Department of Justice., (n.d.). The United States Attorney’s Office. Middle District of Pennsylvania. Retrieved from