How the Courts Operate

The Pennsylvania judiciary hears two types of cases: criminal and civil.

What is a Criminal Case?

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.

The course of a criminal case:

  1. Alleged crime occurs
  2. Arrest takes place
  3. Preliminary hearing is held ordinarily in one of the base-level courts to determine if the case should be brought to trial
  4. Trial takes place or defendant pleads guilty
  5. If there is a conviction, a sentencing hearing is held
  6. Defendant can appeal conviction to Superior Court. If the appeal is unsuccessful, it can go to Supreme Court

What is a Civil Case?

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.

The course of a civil case:

  1. Dispute develops
  2. Complaint filed and served
  3. Defendant may be required to file an answer
  4. Both sides gather evidence
  5. Pre-trial conference takes place between judge and attorneys for both sides to discuss possible settlement
  6. If there is no settlement, trial takes place and a verdict is rendered
  7. Either party can appeal the decision to appellate courts

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.

Going Before the Jury

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:

  1. Evidence is presented by each side through exhibits and testimonies. After all the evidence is presented, each attorney presents a closing argument. If the case is being tried before a jury, the judge instructs the jury on how to apply the law to the case. 
  2. Jurors deliberate privately to determine the outcome of a case. In criminal cases, a jury determines whether a defendant is guilty or not guilty and, in some cases, determines a penalty. The judge is responsible for formally sentencing the defendant at a later hearing. In a civil case, the jury determines whether a plaintiff has proven the case and what, if any, damages to award. Under certain circumstances, the judge may overrule the jury's determination or damage award. 
  3. If a trial is held without a jury's involvement, the judge hears all witness testimonies and attorney arguments and determines the outcome of the case based upon the law.