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Appellate Advocacy and Brief Writing

Appellate procedure resources for federal and state appellate courts.

Pennsylvania Court System

Appellate Courts

Pennsylvania’s appellate courts form a two-tiered appeals system. The first, or intermediate, level has two courts: the Superior Court, which has 15 judges, and the Commonwealth Court, which has nine. At the second level is the seven-justice Supreme Court, the highest court in Pennsylvania.

In general, appeals of Common Pleas Court decisions are made to one of the two intermediate appellate courts.

Commonwealth Court

The Commonwealth Court was created by the Constitutional Convention in 1968 as not only a means to reduce the workload of the Superior and Supreme courts, but as a court to hear cases brought against and by the Commonwealth. It has, therefore, both original and appellate jurisdiction.

The court’s original jurisdiction encompasses:

  • civil actions brought against the Commonwealth government or an officer of the government, usually seeking equitable relief or declaratory judgment and not damages
  • civil actions brought by the Commonwealth government (note: these could also be brought in the Courts of Common Pleas)
  • matters under the Election Code involving statewide offices.

Its appellate jurisdiction includes:

  • appeals relating to decisions made by most state administrative agencies
  • appeals from the Courts of Common Pleas involving:
    • actions against the Commonwealth that could not be initiated in Commonwealth Court
    • actions by the Commonwealth that could have been commenced in Commonwealth Court
    • some appeals from decisions of the Liquor Control Board and the Department of Transportation
    • most local government matters other than contract issues, including actions for damages
    • eminent domain proceedings
    • matters involving the internal affairs of nonprofit corporations.

Superior Court

Because the Superior Court’s main function is as an appeals court, its original jurisdiction is limited. Such jurisdiction includes applications made by the attorney general and district attorneys under the Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Control Act.

As an appeals court, the Superior Court’s jurisdiction is less specialized than the Commonwealth’s; therefore, it hears a wide variety of petitions, both criminal and civil, from Common Pleas courts. Such petitions include all manner of cases from child custody to armed robbery to breach of contract.

Supreme Court

Since the Supreme Court was established by the Pennsylvania Provincial Assembly in 1722, the Commonwealth’s highest court has undergone several major changes that have helped shape its composition today. The most far-reaching of these changes was the 1980 expansion of the Court’s authority that allowed it to not only better administer the entire judicial system, but to devote greater attention to cases holding significant consequence for the Commonwealth and its citizens.

The Supreme Court’s jurisdiction encompasses four main areas: original, appellate, exclusive and extraordinary.

The Court’s original jurisdiction is non-exclusive and includes cases:

  • of habeas corpus , cases involving detention of a party and determination of whether that party has been denied liberty without due process
  • of mandamus ,  or prohibition to courts of inferior jurisdiction
  • of quo warranto , lawsuits challenging the right of an individual to hold a public office, alleging that the individual is holding the office illegally.

The Court’s appellate jurisdiction includes those cases it hears at its own discretion and various types of cases heard as a matter of right. These latter cases include appeals of cases originating in Commonwealth Court and appeals of certain final orders issued by either the Common Pleas courts or specific constitutional and judicial agencies.

Appeals from final orders of Common Pleas courts include:

  • cases involving matters prescribed by general rule
  • the right to public office
  • matters where the qualifications, tenure or right to serve or the manner of service of any member of the judiciary is in question
  • review of death sentences
  • matters where the right or power of the Commonwealth or any political subdivision to create or issue indebtedness is in question
  • supersession of a district attorney by the attorney general or by a court
  • statutes and rules held unconstitutional by the Courts of Common Pleas
  • matters where the right to practice law is involved.

The Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction of appeals from the following boards/commissions:

  • Legislative Reapportionment Commission
  • Court of Judicial Discipline (under limited conditions)
  • Minor Judiciary Education Board
  • Pennsylvania Board of Law Examiners
  • Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court (attorneys).

The Court also has exclusive jurisdiction of appeals from Common Pleas courts involving the death penalty. Such cases are automatically appealed to the Supreme Court.

Finally, the Court possesses extraordinary jurisdiction to assume jurisdiction of any case pending before a lower court involving an issue of immediate public importance. This it can do on its own or upon petition from any party and is commonly known as king’s bench power.

As with president judges in lower courts having seven or fewer judges, the chief justice attains office by virtue of having the longest continuous service among the seven justices.

~ The Unified Judicial System of PA

PA Rules of Appellate Procedure

The Pennsylvania Rules of Appellate Procedure can be found in:

Legal System - Pennsylvania District Courts


Western District Middle District Eastern District

Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Bedford, Blair, Butler, Cambria, Cameron, Clarion, Clearfield, Crawford, Elk, Erie, Fayette, Forest, Greene, Indiana, Jefferson, Lawrence, McKean, Mercer, Potter, Somerset, Venango, Warren, Washington, Westmoreland

Adams, Berks, Bradford, Centre, Clinton, Columbia, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Huntingdon, Juniata, Lackawanna, Lancaster, Lebanon, Luzerne, Lycoming, Mifflin, Montour, Northumberland, Perry, Schuylkill, Snyder, Sullivan, Susquehanna, Tioga, Union, Wyoming, York

Bucks, Carbon, Chester, Delaware, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, Philadelphia, Pike, Wayne

Federal vs. State: What's the Difference?

Pennsylvania state courts decide cases involving child custody matters, divorce, most criminal cases, real estate issues, juvenile issues, contract disputes, traffic violations, personal injury issues, and inheritance matters, to name a few. These courts can also hear cases that are appeals from state or local agencies. For example, an appeal from a local zoning decision would normally go to the local Common Pleas Court.
But, there are certain categories of legal disputes that are resolved in federal courts. Federal courts may hear cases that involve the U.S. Constitution, federal law, the United States government, or controversies between states or between the U.S. government and foreign governments. In addition, they may hear “diversity of citizenship” cases – cases between citizens of different states (for example, between a citizen of Pennsylvania and a citizen of New York), or between a citizen of a state and a non-U.S. citizen. Note that diversity of citizenship cases must involve claims that exceed $75,000.
The federal courts also hear appeals from federal agencies. For example, an appeal from a denial of social security benefits by the Social Security Administration, would go to the federal courts, once all administrative appeals are finished.
Federal district courts in Pennsylvania are: the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania, and the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania.