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Here Comes The Judge

At some point in their life, almost everyone incurs the experience of appearing in Court, whether they are the initiator of a lawsuit (the Plaintiff) or the recipient of a Complaint (the Defendant). In these situations, the person who likely has the most important impact on the outcome of the case is the Judge. So, who is this person and how or why did they become part of the judiciary branch of government?

Judges, as we know, are supposed to be impartial and nonpolitical, but most judges are practicing attorneys before they become judges and usually have ties to a political party which is the process generally required initially to become a member of the “Bench.”

In the federal court system, judges don their robes through an appointment process rather than an election. The President of the United States makes such appointments which require confirmation by the United States Senate. The appointment of federal judges is a life term. This avoids the need for federal judges to run for office through a general election and arguably permits the judges to be independent in their decision-making processes.

On the contrary, county and appellate court judges in Pennsylvania courts achieve their office through an election process initially and thereafter through a vote by the citizenry to be retained. A retention election occurs every ten years for judges after their original election.

For the average person, a court appearance will likely be in a magisterial district court or the County Court of Common Pleas.

A magisterial district judge (formerly called district justices and earlier called justices of the peace) sits in what is more commonly known as small claims court. These judges are elected for six-year terms and are permitted to campaign and politics only during their election years. These judges here have jurisdiction to hear civil cases, including landlord/tenant actions, and can assess damages up to $12,000. They also are the first judges to preside over arraignments and preliminary hearings for criminal offenses. Magisterial district justices have geographic areas within each county and have jurisdiction over disputes only in those areas.

For most larger cases, the County Court of Common Pleas is the court of original jurisdiction where litigants will have contact with the judge. The number of judges assigned to each county is based on population, and each county judiciary has its own rules of operation and determines how each judge is assigned to particular cases such as civil cases, criminal cases, family law cases, juvenile law cases, or cases within the Orphans’ Court.

Decisions rendered by county court judges can be appealed as of right to either the Pennsylvania Superior Court or the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court, which are the first level of appellate courts in the Commonwealth. The subject matter of the case under appeal determines which of the appellate courts would hear the case. In most circumstances, the decision from one of these appellate courts is a final decision.

The final and highest court of appeals in Pennsylvania is the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which consists of seven justices. A party that is unsatisfied with the decision of the Superior Court or Commonwealth Court can request that the Supreme Court hear their case. The Supreme Court is not required to hear the case and can decline to do so. Typically, the Supreme Court will hear only significant cases or cases where the lower courts have reached inconsistent results on the same topic.

Unfortunately, depending on the type of case, a trip through the courts from beginning to end can be significantly lengthy, sometimes lasting multiple years if appeals are undertaken. Regardless of the type of court, all judges are required to review the facts of each case, determine the credibility of all the witnesses involved, and render a decision consistent with the principles of law.

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