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

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

At a quick glance: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is made up of 7 justices. Currently, there are 4 Democrats and 2 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. Supreme Court 101

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the highest court in the state and the oldest appellate court in the nation, dating back to 1684. Comprised of seven justices, the court is responsible for interpreting Pennsylvania’s laws and Constitution to make final judgments on a wide range of legal questions.

State Supreme Court justices review appeals from the state’s two lower appellate panels, the Commonwealth and Superior Courts, and also have the power to intervene in any lower court case they choose. The court additionally oversees the state’s judicial system, which includes administering the state bar exam and disciplining lawyers who violate ethics rules.

Decisions by the state Supreme Court have affected the lives of virtually every Pennsylvanian. In the past decade alone, the court has ruled on cases that preserved access to mail voting, found that revenue from oil and gas drilling on state land should go toward environmental conservation, and allowed clergy implicated in — but not convicted of — sexual abuse to have their names shielded.

As with all three of Pennsylvania’s appellate courts, Supreme Court justices are elected in partisan contests — a practice only seven states in the nation use.

Other options for judicial selection include nonpartisan elections and appointment by a selection committee, the governor, or the legislature — all methods that are generally designed to insulate judges from politics.

Pennsylvania’s judicial races are statewide, and have a lot in common with elections for political office: Judges run under the umbrella of a party, form campaign committees to raise money, and are endorsed by political organizations. However, judicial candidates also follow much stricter campaign rules than most political hopefuls. They can’t ask for donations directly — that must be done via their political committees — and they also can’t promise to rule in a particular way while on the campaign trail.

Once elected, justices serve 10-year terms. At the end of a term, they can either be retained or rejected in a statewide yes-or-no vote, which they rarely lose. There is no limit to the number of terms a judge can serve, however, they must retire at age 75.

Currently, the court has four Democratic justices, two Republicans, and one vacancy after the 2022 death of Chief Justice Max Baer. That vacancy will be filled in this year’s election.

  • October 12, 2023
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