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How Does the Philadelphia Municipal Court Work?
The Philadelphia Municipal Court is a minor trial court in the city of Philadelphia. This court does not hold jury trials; instead, it has bench trials. Appeals from The Philadelphia Municipal Court are heard by the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, meaning if a party or entity disagrees with the judgment made on a case, the Court of Common Pleas will hear the argument and rule on it. The Municipal Court serves as a community court in Philadelphia, as per Article 5 § 6 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The Philadelphia Municipal Court is part of The First Judicial District of Pennsylvania (FJDP), comprising three judiciaries: the Court of Common Pleas, the Municipal Court, and Traffic Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court controls the FJDP, and the FJDP is not part of the city government despite being located solely in Philadelphia. The Municipal Court also has three subdivisions: Civil, Criminal, and Traffic.
The Civil Division of the Philadelphia Municipal Court handles Small Claims cases where penalties come out to $10,000 or less, code enforcement cases where the penalty is $15,000 or less. The Criminal Division of the Municipal Court hears summary trials and misdemeanor trials. Preliminary hearings for felony cases are also heard in the Municipal Court. All arrests in the county are processed through The Municipal Court, as this is the place of initial involvement from the court. The Traffic Division holds hearings for traffic offenses that violate the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code. A Supervising or Administrative Judge head all three divisions.
The duration of time that a case heard by the Philadelphia Municipal Court takes to resolve can vary significantly. A civil lawsuit can be heard anywhere from a year to a year and a half after the initial filing. The subsequent trial or hearings’ duration can depend on whether the initiator or defendant is willing to settle. Civil trials can last a few hours or up to weeks. Criminal trials are set before civil trials, although the trial may still take months to complete.
The primary jurisdiction and responsibilities of the Philadelphia Municipal Court include:
- Adult criminal cases with a maximum sentence of five years
- Preliminary hearings in adult felony cases
- Small claims cases involving $10,000 or less
- Landlord and tenant matters matters
- Landlord and tenant cases, and real estate and school tax cases which involving up to $15,000
- Traffic violations
Philadelphia voters vote for Municipal Court judges in elections, of which there are 27. Judges run in these elections partisanly, meaning that each individual aligns themselves with a specific political party. If an election turns out successful, a judge is elected to serve on the court for an initial term of six years. After six years, judges who wish to continue serving may run in a retention election. All judges except for magistrate judges run in retention elections. The Municipal Court also elects President Judges from the bench.
Individuals must meet specific criteria to qualify to run as a judge on the Philadelphia Municipal Court:
- Potential candidates must be an established member of the state bar.
- The individual must be a resident of not only Pennsylvania but Philadelphia County.
- The candidate must be under 75 years of age.
Pennsylvania law requires the retirement of all judges when the party reaches the age of 75. Occasionally, a judge may turn 75 mid-term and be obligated to retire. There is also the possibility that entities can remove a judge from the bench due to judicial misconduct. If a judge retires or is removed, the court will appoint what is known as an interim, or temporary, judge. The court will expect this judge to serve on the bench for the previous judge’s term’s remaining period. Although it is possible for an interim judge to run after the initial temporary term is over, it is not typical or expected.
Parties who wish to access information related to the Philadelphia Municipal Court have options. Individuals can use the Pennsylvania Judicial System portal to view case dockets for the Municipal Court. The portal makes it possible to search for and print out full docket sheets, but it does not give case records access. Parties can only access Municipal Court Case files through the magisterial district court office where the party initially filed the case. Filling out and submitting a request form may aid in the case record search.
All Municipal Court offices are open from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. The addresses and contact information are as follows: