Selecting a Judge

History of Judges

 Currently in Pennsylvania, the Judiciary consists of the following types of judges:
  1. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
  2. Justices of the Supreme Court.  The highest court in Pennsylvania.  There are seven Justices on this Court, including the Chief Justice.
  3. Superior Court and Commonwealth Court.  These are intermediate courts having jurisdiction over different types of appeals.
    1. The Superior Court is an appellate court of general jurisdiction and has 15 judges.  These judges often hear cases in three judge panels, but may sit en banc to hear cases.
    2. The Commonwealth Court hears appeals from final orders of certain state agencies and certain designated cases involving public sector legal questions and government regulations.  The Commonwealth Court also functions as a trial court in some civil actions against the Commonwealth and cases involving statewide elections.  There are nine judges on the Commonwealth Court.
  4. Court of Common Pleas.  This is the trial court of general jurisdiction in the State.  The sixty Judicial Districts in Pennsylvania are served by approximately 451 judges in Pennsylvania.
  5. Magisterial District Judges.  These judges have had different names over the years, including Justice of the Peace and District Justice.  There are approximately 516 Magisterial District Justices in Pennsylvania.  Bedford County currently has four.  These courts hold preliminary hearings in criminal cases, civil cases up to $12,000.00 including landlord tenant, and minor criminal offenses including traffic.
 Currently all appellate jurists and common pleas judges are elected for 10-year terms and then can run for retention or election.  Magisterial district judges serve for six-year terms and are eligible to run for retention or election.  Those seeking office as justices and judges of the appellate courts and common pleas judges must first be attorney’s of the Bar of the Supreme Court.
Prior to the Revolutionary War judges in Pennsylvania were selected either by nomination by the provincial counsel and commissioned by the governor to service on good behavior; or appointment by the Governor.  Under the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776, the executive council headed by a president had the power to appoint judges; the term was for seven years.  Justices of the Peace served seven years and were elected by the free holders of the county or city.  The Constitution of 1790 established judicial districts and followed the Federal model to ensure a separation of powers and independence of the judiciary.  Judges were appointed by the popularly elected governors who appointed the judges to serve for life tenure, subject to removal for misconduct.
In 1838, terms of judges were reduced from life to 15 years.  In 1850, a constitutional amendment passed for popular election of all judges.  In 1874, the term was extended to 21 years, but limited judges to one term.  The 1967-1968 constitution again altered the system to its present day form.  Judges are elected by partisan popular election for a 10-year term, but may choose at the end of that term to seek retention or election.  In election for judges, the candidates may cross file and seek nomination by more than one party.
From the beginning, Pennsylvania has struggled with how to deal with selection of judges in such a way to address two conflicting goals.  How best to maintain an independent and competent judiciary free from political pressure while ensuring accountability to the sovereign people they serve.

[Image of court houses: Copyright 2017 Larry D. Smith, used with permission.]