Supreme Court of Pennsylvania


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,[1] a claim that is disputed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.[2] 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.[3][4] 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.[5] This discretion allows the Court to wield powerful influence on the formation and interpretation of Pennsylvania law.

Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Seal of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.svg
EstablishedMay 22, 1722 (1722-05-22)
(1684 as Provincial Court)
Composition methodpartisan election with "Yes/No" retention vote at end-of-term
Authorized byConstitution of Pennsylvania
Appeals fromSuperior Court of Pennsylvania
Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania
Judge term length10 years
Number of positions7
WebsitePennsylvania Supreme Court website
Chief Justice
CurrentlyMax Baer
SinceApril 1, 2021 (2021-04-01)
Lead position endsDecember 24, 2022 (2022-12-24)
Jurist term endsDecember 24, 2022 (2022-12-24)
Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is located in Pennsylvania
Court locations


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

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. Until 1776, legislation and judicial decisions in Pennsylvania, as in various American colonies, were subject to review by the Privy Council of the United Kingdom in London.

From 1780–1808 there existed a Pennsylvania High Court of Errors and Appeals, which was the court of last resort in the Commonwealth. After that court's dissolution in 1808, the Commonwealth's Supreme Court became, and remains, the court of last resort in the Pennsylvania judiciary.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania predates the United States Supreme Court by more than 100 years. Interpreting the Pennsylvania Constitution, it was one of the first appellate courts in the United States to claim the power to declare laws made by an elected legislative body unconstitutional (Respublica v. Duquet, 2 Yeates 493 (1799)).

Composition and rulesEdit

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 (at the end of the calendar year), 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.[6]

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))[7]

After the ten-year term expires, a statewide yes or no vote for retention is conducted. A judge who retained 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.[8]


Current membersEdit

as of January 3, 2022:

Name Born Elected Party when first elected Retained Year of next retention election Reaches age 75 Prior positions and education
Max Baer
Chief Justice
(1947-12-24) December 24, 1947 (age 74) 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).
Debra Todd (1957-10-15) October 15, 1957 (age 64) 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).
Christine Donohue (1952-12-24) December 24, 1952 (age 69) 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).
Kevin Dougherty (1962-05-19) May 19, 1962 (age 60) 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).
David Wecht (1962-05-20) May 20, 1962 (age 60) in Baltimore, Maryland[9] 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).
Sallie Updyke Mundy (1962-06-29) June 29, 1962 (age 60) in Elmira, New York 2017 [note 1] 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).
Kevin Brobson (1970-11-26) November 26, 1970 (age 51) in Montoursville, Pennsylvania 2021 Republican First term 2031 November 26, 2045 Judge, Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania (2010–2021); Private Practice (1996–2009); Law Clerk, United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (1995–1996); J.D., Widener University School of Law, Harrisburg Campus (1995); B.A., Lycoming College (1992).
  1. ^ Sallie Updyke Mundy was nominated to fill a vacancy by Governor Tom Wolf and confirmed by the Pennsylvania State Senate in 2016. She was elected to a full term in 2017.

Important casesEdit

  • Eakin v. Raub (1825), in which the Court held that it has the authority of judicial review over state laws if they contradict the state constitution.
  • Pennsylvania v. Davis (2019), in which the Court held that the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America protects individuals from relinquishing the passwords of their digital accounts to law enforcement.[10]
  • Pennsylvania v. Cosby (2021), in which the Court overturned the sexual assault charges against disgraced celebrity Bill Cosby over the rape of Andrea Constand and prevented future litigation over such crime due to violations of his due process rights.[11]
  • Pennsylvania v. Barr II (2021), in which the Court held that warrantless searches are unjustified if they are predicated upon the smell of cannabis alone.[12][13]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Supreme Court – Courts – Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania". Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  2. ^ sjc (July 17, 2013). "About the Supreme Judicial Court". Court System. Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  3. ^ "About the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania – SCOPA Review". Retrieved July 7, 2017.
  4. ^ Rowe, G. S. (1994). Embattled bench: The Pennsylvania Supreme Court and the forging of a democratic society, 1684–1809. Newark: University of Delaware Press.
  5. ^ See generally,' 'Pa.R.A.P. 1112
  6. ^ "Judicial Qualifications, Election, Tenure and Vacancies". The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania.
  7. ^ "Pennsylvania Code".
  8. ^ "Pennsylvania Supreme Court - Ballotpedia". Ballotpedia. Retrieved October 29, 2018.
  9. ^ Judicial Biographies, Pennsylvania Appellate Judges, Superior Court.
  10. ^ Crocker, Andrew (November 20, 2019). "Victory: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Rules Police Can't Force You to Tell Them Your Password". Eff.
  11. ^ Pennsylvania v. Cosby, No. 39-2020, [1] (PA June 30, 2021)
  12. ^ Pennsylvania v. Bar II, No. 28-2021, [2] (PA December 29, 2021)
  13. ^ Deto, Ryan (December 30, 2021). "Pa. Supreme Court says warrantless searches not justified by cannabis smell alone". Pittsburgh City Paper.

External linksEdit

  • Supreme Court of Pennsylvania

Coordinates: 40°15′51″N 76°53′01″W / 40.264260°N 76.883578°W / 40.264260; -76.883578