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Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Seal of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.svg
Established May 22, 1722 (1722-05-22)
(1684 as Provincial Court)
Country Pennsylvania, United States
Location Harrisburg
Pittsburgh
Philadelphia
Composition method partisan election with "Yes/No" retention vote at end-of-term
Authorized by Constitution of Pennsylvania
Judge term length 10 years
Number of positions 7
Chief Justice
Currently Thomas G. Saylor
Since January 6, 2015 (2015-01-06)
Lead position ends December 21, 2021 (2021-12-21)
Jurist term ends December 21, 2021 (2021-12-21)

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is the highest court in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Unified Judicial System. It also claims to be the oldest appellate court in the United States, a claim that is disputed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania began in 1684 as the Provincial Court, and casual references to it as the "Supreme Court" of Pennsylvania were made official in 1722 upon its reorganization as an entity separate from the control of the royal governor. Today, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania maintains a discretionary docket, meaning that the Court may choose which cases it accepts, with the exception of mandatory death penalty appeals, and certain appeals from the original jurisdiction of the Commonwealth Court. This discretion allows the Court to wield powerful influence on the formation and interpretation of Pennsylvania law.

History

Pennsylvania State Capitol Supreme Court
Judges' seats in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chambers in the Pennsylvania State Capitol

The original Pennsylvania constitutions, drafted by William Penn, established a Provincial Court under the control of his British governors. The General Assembly, however, espoused the principle of separation of powers and formally called for a third branch of government starting with the 1701 Judiciary Bill. In 1722, the appointed British governor needed the House to raise revenues. House leaders agreed to raise taxes in return for an independent Supreme Court.

Writ 1702
Writ signed in 1702 by Chief Justice John Guest of the Provincial Court of Pennsylvania

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania predates the United States Supreme Court by more than 100 years. Interpreting the Pennsylvania Constitution, it was the first independent Supreme Court in the United States to claim the power to declare laws made by an elected legislative body unconstitutional.

Pennsylvania State Capitol Supreme Court painting
Mural on the wall of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's chambers in the Pennsylvania State Capitol

Composition and rules

The court meets in three cities: Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Harrisburg.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court consists of seven justices, each elected to ten year terms. Supreme Court judicial candidates may run on party tickets. The justice with the longest continuous service on the court automatically becomes Chief Justice. Justices must step down from the Supreme Court when they reach the age of 75, but they may continue to serve part-time as "senior justices" on panels of the Commonwealth's lower appellate courts until they reach 78, the age of mandatory retirement.

Prior to 2002, judicial candidates in Pennsylvania were prohibited from expressing their views on disputed legal or political issues. However, after a similar law in Minnesota was struck down as unconstitutional (Republican Party of Minnesota v. White), the Pennsylvania rules were amended, and judicial candidates may now express political viewpoints as long as they do not "commit or appear to commit the candidate with respect to cases, controversies or issues that are likely to come before the court." (PA Code of Judicial Conduct, Canon 7 (B)(1)(c))

After the ten-year term expires, a statewide yes or no vote for retention is conducted. If the judge is retained, he/she serves another ten-year term. If the judge is not retained, the governor, subject to the approval of the State Senate, appoints a temporary replacement until a special election can be held. As of 2005, only one judge has failed to win retention. Justice Russell M. Nigro received a majority of no votes in the election of 2005 and was replaced by Justice Cynthia Baldwin, who was appointed by Governor Rendell in 2005.

Only one Supreme Court Justice, Rolf Larsen, has been removed from office by impeachment. In 1994, the State House of Representatives handed down articles of impeachment consisting of seven counts of misconduct. A majority of the State Senate voted against Larsen in five of the seven counts but only one charge garnered the two-thirds majority needed to convict.

Under the 1874 Constitution and until the Pennsylvania state constitution of 1968, Supreme Court justices were elected to 21 year terms. At the time, it was the longest term of any elected office in the United States.

Justices

Current members

Name Born Elected Party when first elected Retained Year of next retention election Reaches age 75 Prior positions and education
Saylor, Thomas G.Thomas G. Saylor
Chief Justice
December 14, 1946 (1946-12-14) (age 74) in Somerset County, Pennsylvania 1997 Republican 2007, 2017 None – final term December 14, 2021 Justice, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania (1997-2015); Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (1993–1997); private practice (1987–1993); First Deputy Attorney General, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1983–1987); Director, Pennsylvania Bureau of Consumer Protection (1982–1983); First Assistant District Attorney, Somerset County (1973–1976); private practice (1972–1982); J.D., Columbia Law School (1972); B.A., University of Virginia (1969).
Baer, MaxMax Baer December 24, 1947 (1947-12-24) (age 73) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania 2003 Democratic 2013 None – final term December 24, 2022 Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (1989–2003); private practice (1980–1989); Deputy Attorney General, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (1975–1979); J.D., Duquesne University School of Law (1975); B.A., University of Pittsburgh (1971).
Todd, DebraDebra Todd October 15, 1957 (1957-10-15) (age 63) in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania 2007 Democratic 2017 2027 October 15, 2032 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2000–2007); private practice (1982–1999); J.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Law (1982); B.A., Chatham College (1979).
Donohue, ChristineChristine Donohue December 24, 1952 (1952-12-24) (age 68) in Coaldale, Pennsylvania 2015 Democratic First term 2025 December 24, 2027 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2008–2015); private practice, (1980–2007); J.D., Duquesne University School of Law (1980); B.A., East Stroudsburg University (1974).
Dougherty, KevinKevin Dougherty May 19, 1962 (1962-05-19) (age 58) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2015 Democratic First term 2025 May 19, 2037 Judge, Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas (2001–2016); private practice, (1995–2001); Assistant District Attorney, Philadelphia County (1990–1995); J.D., Antioch School of Law (1987); B.A., Temple University (1985).
Wecht, DavidDavid Wecht May 20, 1962 (1962-05-20) (age 58) in Baltimore, Maryland 2015 Democratic First term 2025 May 20, 2037 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2012–2015); Judge, Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas (2003–2012); Register of Wills and Clerk of Orphans' Court, Allegheny County; law clerk, United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, Judge George MacKinnon; J.D., Yale Law School (1987); B.A., Yale University (1984).
Updyke Mundy, SallieSallie Updyke Mundy June 29, 1962 (1962-06-29) (age 58) in Elmira, New York 2017 Republican First term 2027 June 29, 2037 Judge, Superior Court of Pennsylvania (2010–2016); private practice (1988–2009); Volunteer Public Defender, Public Defender's Office of Tioga County; law clerk, Tioga County Court of Common Pleas (1987–1988); J.D., University of Pittsburgh School of Law (1987); B.A., Washington and Jefferson College (1984).
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