The Pennsylvania judiciary hears two types of cases: criminal and civil.
A criminal charge is a violation of the criminal law and considered an offense against the community. In a criminal case, an individual can be charged with a felony, misdemeanor or summary offense. Felony charges, such as murder and arson, carry the most severe penalties, while misdemeanors and summary offenses carry lesser penalties. If the prosecutor proves to a jury, or to the judge hearing a case without a jury, that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, that person stands convicted and can face penalties, including prison, fines or probation.
Civil cases include every type of legal action except criminal actions, including personal injuries, contract disputes, adoptions, divorces and faulty consumer goods. The party bringing suit, or plaintiff, must prove his or her case before a judge or jury by presenting evidence that is more persuasive than the opposing evidence (unlike a criminal case where the proof must be beyond a reasonable doubt). Some aspects of civil cases—divorce, support or child custody matters—may be heard before quasi-judicial officers, including hearing masters or conference officers.
Both criminal and civil cases may be tried before a judge or a jury and a judge. Juries are primarily available in trials held in Courts of Common Pleas. There are no juries in the Supreme Court and Superior Court, and they are rarely used in Commonwealth Court. Even when a jury is permitted, both sides can agree to have the case tried before a judge only.
In a jury trial, prospective jurors are randomly selected. Each potential juror is asked questions by the judge and/or attorneys to determine if he or she is qualified to hear the case. After the selected jurors are sworn in, attorneys present an opening statement to the jury to outline what each side believes the evidence will show: