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The Court of Common Pleas: A History

City Hall South Portal

The Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia County enjoys a rich, proud and colorful history that predates the founding of the United States of America. Since its creation, the Court of Common Pleas has served as a venue for landmark legal decisions. Created in 1722 with the passage of the Judiciary Act, the Court provided the nascent colony of Pennsylvania with legislative and judicial autonomy1. Initially, the Court adjudicated and enforced the statutory and common law of England. However, subsequent Constitutional Conventions have changed the design and number of Pennsylvania's Common Pleas Courts.

The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776 provided for the establishment of an independent Court of Common Pleas in each of the state's counties2 . Later, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 altered the Court's structure by placing President Judges at the head of each districts' Common Pleas Court3. The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 reconstituted the existing court while preserving anachronistic courts such as the courts of oyer and terminer, quarter sessions, chancery and orphans court. These courts were consolidated into the Court of Common Pleas by the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1874. However, the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1968 implemented the most drastic transformation of the Court's organization in its storied history.

Prior to the Constitutional Convention of 1966-67 and the adoption of the Judiciary Article (Pa.Const. Art. V), seven different Courts of Common Pleas existed across Philadelphia. Twenty-one Common Pleas judges were divided evenly among the seven courts, with each court having its own President Judge and two Assistant Judges4. As a result of the Constitution of 1968, the Court of Common Pleas became a more powerful system characterized by a centralization of judicial authority.

The Constitution of 1968 consolidated the Common Pleas Courts by creating the position of President Judge. The President Judge possessed the power of assignment over all other judges. Vincent A. Carroll was nominated to serve as the Court of Common Pleas' first President Judge5. The Constitution of 1968 also established that each division of the Court of Common Pleas be presided over by an Administrative Judge. Administrative Judges are responsible for assisting the President Judge in the Court's judicial business. These Administrative Judges are elected by a majority of the judges in their divisions for terms of five years. Administrative Judge positions were created in Common Pleas Court, Orphan's Court, and Municipal Court.

The Constitution of 1968 also ushered in an era of judicial reform. Prior to the Constitution, criminal trials were assigned by trial commissioners to specific judges. Trial commissioners were frequently pressured by defense attorneys to assign their cases to judges who they believed were more likely to render favorable verdicts. The consolidation of the court system under the Constitution of 1968 reduced a propensity for impropriety within the court system6.

Throughout its history, the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas has often served as an arena for power struggles between the city's leading politicians. Historically, judicial elections became increasingly political in the 1980s. Political parties coveted judicial positions as a means of protecting and furthering, their legislative agendas. For example, when vacancies occurred on the court before the expiration of a judge's term, political parties would attempt to exercise influence over the selection of replacement judges. During his tenure as the Governor of Pennsylvania, Bob Casey was faced with the task of filling five vacancies on the Court of Common Pleas. Gov. Casey refused to yield to political pressure from both Democrat and Republican politicians who were lobbying for their parties' desired replacements. Instead, he decided to appoint judges on merit alone. Initially, the Senate would not confirm the judges Gov. Casey selected. However, Casey persisted and eventually the judges were approved7. This event in the history of the Court of Common Pleas exemplifies the Court's steadfast attempts to preserve the judicial system against potential manipulation from outside sources.

A number of cases that have come through the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas have had a national impact. The Philadelphia Teamsters Trial of 1964 was one of the more important cases. Seven members of Teamsters Local 107, a Philadelphia division of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, were charged with defrauding the Union pension fund. Teamsters General President Jimmy Hoffa monitored the trial very closely as any verdict rendered against the Teamsters would have a significant national impact on the organization's practices. Interestingly, the prosecution was spearheaded by a young Assistant District Attorney, and future United States Senator, named Arlen Specter. The trial would be one of the first major victories of the future Pennsylvania Senator's career as the seven Teamsters each received one-and-half to two-year sentences on the charges. However, the effects of the verdict were much broader as the United States Government utilized the gained momentum to undertake a nationwide crime investigation of Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamster's business practices8.

In 1966 the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas was also the venue for one of the first cases involving the legality of Community Legal Services (CLS). CLS is an organization created by William Klaus whose sole aim was to provide free legal services for the poor and disadvantaged members of the Philadelphia area9. A group of Philadelphia attorneys challenged the creation of the CLS claiming that it violated attorney's rights. The trial, which was presided over by Judge Raymond Pace Alexander, culminated in an affirmation of the CLS' goals and ultimately set a legal precedent that has facilitated the creation of legal service programs across the United States10.

The 1990s brought a change in how judges obtain office and birthed a new era of the Court of Common Pleas which was defined by the diversity of its judges. As political parties lost their stranglehold on the judicial election process, many of the political hurdles that previously prevented aspiring judges from being elected were removed. Historically, in order for prospective judges to be endorsed by a political party, they would have to commit to employing the secretaries, tip staff, and other staff members that the party desired11. However, as political parties' influence on judges waned, judges were freed from a substantial amount of the political oversight that influenced court decisions and staff composition for many years. Subsequently, as the electorate became more diverse, African-Americans, Latin Americans, and women have emerged to take prominent positions in the court.

As the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas moved into the 21st century, it experienced expansion and modernization. In 1995, the criminal division of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas was moved to the newly constructed The Juanita Kidd Stout Center for Criminal Justice located to the northeast of City Hall12. In 2007, the Common Pleas criminal courts were computerized by the Pennsylvania Common Pleas Criminal Case Management System13.

As the Court of Common Pleas continues to grow and expand it will continue to be faced with making lasting decisions that affect the landscape of both the Philadelphia area and, in some cases, the whole country. Since the inception of the Court of Common Pleas, its judges have constructed a judicial framework which is characterized by a steadfast dedication to the law. Following the example set by their predecessors, future Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judges will continue to serve as arbiters of justice and trailblazers for Civil Rights.

  1. "A Brief History of the Courts of Pennsylvania," Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, 20 June 2009 < www.aopc.org/NR/rdonlyres/188DF97E-3612.../06cthist07.pdf>.
  2. Ibid
  3. Ibid
  4. Daughen, Joseph R. Telephone interview. 27 June 2009.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Ibid
  8. Bogutz, Jerome. Telephone Interview. 29 July 2009.
  9. "About Community Legal Services of Philadelphia," Community Legal Services of Philadelphia. 28 June 2009. < http://www.clsphila.org/Content.aspx?section=about%20cls>.
  10. Bogutz, Jerome. Telephone Interview. 29 July 2009.
  11. Daughen, Joseph R. Telephone interview. 27 June 2009.
  12. Smith, Sandy, "Philadelphia City Hall, A Monument to Ambition and Evolution," City Mayors, 28 June 2009 < http://www.citymayors.com/cityhalls/philadelphia-cityhall.html>.
  13. "A Brief History of the Courts of Pennsylvania," Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, 20 June 2009 < www.aopc.org/NR/rdonlyres/188DF97E-3612.../06cthist07.pdf>.