Pa. Commonwealth Court 101: What it is, why it matters, and more

Commonwealth Court presides over cases brought against state government. Here’s what to know ahead of the Nov. 7 election.

Illustration showing 3 people looking at a map of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court presides over civil actions against the state and local governments. (Daniel Fishel for Spotlight PA)

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

At a quick glance: Commonwealth Court is made up of 9 judges. Currently, there are 3 Democrats and 5 Republicans that serve on the court. There is 1 vacancy before voters in the November 2023 election. To qualify for a seat on the court, candidates must have state residency for at least one year and reside in the commonwealth throughout the duration of their term. They must be at least 21 years of age, but not older than 75. They also have to be a member of the Bar of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and licensed to practice law in the state.

Pa. Commonwealth Court 101

The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania is one of two intermediate appellate courts in the state and is made up of nine judges. Established in 1968, the court has a unique mandate among appellate courts in the United States: It presides specifically over civil actions brought against the commonwealth, including state and local governments, and with regulatory agencies. When lawsuits are filed by or against Pennsylvania, Commonwealth Court also acts as a trial court.

Many of the state Supreme Court’s most notable cases are initially heard by Commonwealth Court, and the two courts’ decisions sometimes differ. In 2020, for instance, the lower court ruled in favor of a handful of Republicans seeking to delay certification or disqualify ballots in that year’s heavily litigated elections — victories that were ultimately overturned by the state Supreme Court.

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Commonwealth Court judges get their seats in partisan elections, then face a nonpartisan retention vote every 10 years. These retention votes usually succeed.

Commonwealth Court is currently GOP-controlled, with five Republicans on the bench, three Democrats, and one vacancy, which will be filled in this fall’s election.

Frequently asked questions about the Pa. Commonwealth Court:

Where can I find the PA Commonwealth Court opinions and docket?

Court opinions and docket sheets are available online. To learn how to search dockets, check out this guide. The court system also maintains a webpage of cases it deems especially relevant to the public.

Who are the PA Commonwealth Court judges?

Commonwealth Court also has two senior judges, President Judge Emerita Bonnie Brigance Leadbetter and President Judge Emerita Mary Hannah Leavitt. Senior judges are retired judges who have been approved by the state court administrator to continue serving, often in a pro bono capacity.

Where can I find a guide to PA Commonwealth Court candidates?

You can find more information about the Superior Court candidates in Spotlight PA’s guide.

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