The Courts of Pennsylvania

Many of our people do not understand the difference between the various courts in this state and are puzzled when advised by their attorney that their case will be tried in a certain court, and then later tells them that it has been removed to another court. Some people immediately say that the attorney is crooked or he does not know anything about his business.

In view of the many steps that can and usually are taken in a case, I thought that our readers would be interested in an explanation.

This article cannot cover the whole field, but will discuss some of the more common facts about these courts.

The courts in other states are divided in practically the same manner as they are in Pennsylvania, but sometimes they are known by different names and their jurisdiction may vary to a slight degree.

We have three divisions in our courts. First is the minor Judiciary such as Justice of the Peace. Alderman and Magistrate. Secondly, we have the courts at the county seat such as County Court in Allegheny County, Municipal Courts in Philadelphia, Common Pleas in every county and Quarter Sessions in every county. Thirdly, are the Appellate Courts, which are Superior Court and Supreme Court.


The minor Judiciary is composed of Justices of the Peace, which are found in every county, Aldermen, which are found in third class cities, magistrates, which are found in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

A Justice of the Peace or Alderman has jurisdiction in civil cases where the amount sued for it not more than $300.00. Your suit is filed before him and if, at the hearing, he decides in favor of the plaintiff, that is the party that brings the suit, he gives a judgment for the amount which, he finds to be due. The defendant, that is the party who is sued, can appeal this case to the Court of Common Pleas within twenty days by giving a bond in double the amount of debt, interest and costs, if the judgment is for more than $5.33. If it is for less than this amount, then no appeal can be taken and the judgment is final. The Justice of the Peace or Alderman also has jurisdiction in criminal cases. In some cases such as disorderly conduct, some violation of the automobile laws, etc., he has the right to find a man guilty of a crime and sentence him to pay a fine or to serve time in jail. In the more serious crimes the Justice of the Peace or Alderman can only hold the person for court. That is, his jurisdiction is merely limited to the question of him finding out whether or not a sufficient case was made out for consideration of the grand jury. If he so finds, he then holds the defendant for court under bond. In felonious cases, such as murder, manslaughter, robbery, larceny, etc., the Justice of the Peace or Alderman cannot set bail, but must send the papers to court and then a Judge sets the amount of bail required.

The Magistrate Courts in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh usually enforce city ordinances.


The two most important courts of the county are the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Quarter Sessions.

The Court of Common Pleas deals with civil cases in which any suit can be brought for any amount of money whatsoever. Also all appeals from the Justice of the Peace or Alderman are filed in this court. Here the cases are tried before a Jury.

If the plaintiff loses a case before the Common Pleas Court, he cannot have another Jury pass upon his case unless the Court grants a new trial. Some of our people are under the impression that if they lose a case in Common Pleas Court, they can then transfer the case to a large city such as Philadelphia or Pittsburg and then have another jury pass upon it. This is an error for the only thing left to do then is an appeal to the Appellate Courts.

The Quarter Session Court takes care of all criminal cases except murder cases and they are tried by a court of Oyer and Terminer, which is always composed of the same Judge and Jury but is given different name.

At this point I will explain the proceedings used in criminal cases after the man has been held for Court. A justce of the Peace of Alderman sends the papers in that cases to the District Attorney. The District Attorney submits the case to a Grand Jury. The Grand Jury does not decide whether a man is guilty or not guilty, but merely decides whether or not the case should be submitted to court for trial. The number of grand jurors may be from twelve to twenty-three. They elect a foreman from among themselves. No judge presides over the Grand Jury and the defendant does not appear before the Grand Jury. All that is done is that the District Attorney calls in the person who made the information and the witnesses one by one, and are questioned by him. No other attorneys are permitted in the room. If, from this examination, the Grand Jury thinks the case would be submitted to they Court, then it finds a "True Bill." If they find that the facts do not make out a good case, then they "Ignore the Bill," and dispose of the costs. In the minor crimes such as assault and battery, conversion, liquor law violations, etc., they can either put the costs on the prosecutor or on the county. In felonies the county pays all costs.

After a true bill is found, the case is set for trial within several weeks and then both sides appear in court before a Judge and a “Petit Jury" composed of twelve people. The finding of the Jury is final unless the verdict can be set aside on a question of law by the Judge.

In addition to the above named courts, we have a seperate civil court in Philadelphia known as the Municipal Court, where all cases for claims under $2500.00 are filed. This court also has jurisdiction in the lesser criminal eases, but do not include eases of arson, murder, manslaughter, treason or conspiracy to violate election or registration laws, or cases for violation of official duties by public officers.

In Allegheny County we have County Courts, which only have civil jurisdiction in all cases up to $1500.00. It also takes care of desertion and non-support cases.

Another important Court in this division is the Court of Equity. In this Court there is no Jury and the Judge decides all questions of law and fact. lie is the Judge and the Jury. All cases where you ask for an injunction or where you ask to set aside a deed, questions involving the holding of public office, are tried in this Court. Our people will best remember this court as the Court in which many of our church cases are tried.


The Appellate Courts consist of the Superior Court and the Supreme Court.

Neither of these Courts have any Juries. They do not hear any witnesses, they merely pass upon the questions of law raised at the trial in the lower Court. From these questions of law they can either affirm the finding of the lower courts, they can grant new trials, or reverse the judgment of the lower court, purely on questions of law.

The Superior Court is composed of seven Judges known as Justices, and they have final jurisdiction in all criminal cases except felonious homicide-murder. In civil cases where the amount involved does not exceed $2500.00, the appeals are taken to the Superior Court.

The Supreme Court has final jurisdiction in all murder cases and in all civil cases where the amount involved is over $2500.00. The Supreme Court is composed of seven Judges known as Justices.

The above resume only touches upon the more common phases of our courts. This article is not written for the purpose of giving you advice, for in all cases you should always consult your attorney.

It is very important, whenever you are served with any papers by any constable or sheriff, you should immediately consult your attorney, for there are always a certain number of days within which an answer should be filed by your attorney. Many of our people suffer great losses every year because they neglect to look after their legal business promptly and after the proper number of days have expired it is almost impossible in many instances for an attorney to help you out.

Legal Advisor of United Russian
Orthodox Brotherhood
Of America