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Pennsylvania elects most judges. Here’s how the process works.

How are judges chosen? How much do they make? What is judicial gerrymandering? Here's how Pennsylvania picks who sits on the court.

Here's how Pennsylvania chooses judges.
Here's how Pennsylvania chooses judges.Read moreCynthia Greer

Let’s face it, off-year state and local elections aren’t quite as exciting (or polarizing) as a presidential race.

Maybe you have something of an election hangover after 2020.

But while much of the political world is already looking ahead to high-profile races for U.S. Senate and governor in Pennsylvania in 2022, there are some important elections in the months ahead, starting with the May 18 primary.

And if you go to the polls that day or vote by mail, your ballot will include elections for judges — including a new state Supreme Court justice.

Wondering how judicial elections work? We’ve got you covered with a rundown on some of the basics.

How are judges chosen in Pennsylvania?

Pennsylvania judges are mostly selected in partisan elections. There are exceptions for vacancies, which are filled by appointment by the governor and confirmation by the state Senate. (Judges who are appointed have to run in the next municipal election if they want to stay on the bench.)

After their first term, most judges run in nonpartisan retention elections. In those cases, there’s no opponent, just a yes-or-no vote on whether to keep the judge on the bench. The exception: municipal/magisterial court judges, who do have to seek reelection in partisan races.

Judicial elections are always held in odd-numbered years (like 2021).

How do other states pick judges?

It varies. Some states elect trial court judges but appoint higher court judges. And the process often changes after a judge’s first term ends.

There are 21 different systems in the United States just for state Supreme Courts, according to the National Center for State Courts. Some states, like New Jersey, use a confirmation process involving the governor and the legislature. Others hold nonpartisan elections. More than a dozen use a “merit” selection process in which an independent commission compiles a list of qualified. The governor must select a judge from that list, sometimes in consultation with one or both chambers of the legislature.

Pennsylvania is one of only seven states that use partisan elections, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.

How many judges are there in Pennsylvania?

More than 500 judges preside over entry-level courts across the state, known as Municipal Court in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and Magisterial District Court everywhere else. They handle minor civil and criminal cases.

Some 450 judges serve on Common Pleas Court, Pennsylvania’s trial court of general jurisdiction, according to state data. The court, which handles major civil and criminal cases, is organized into 60 districts across the state, largely by county. The number of judges ranges from one in Clarion County to 93 in Philadelphia.

Lower court appeals are heard by Superior and Commonwealth Courts, which hear thousands of cases a year and typically convene three-judge panels. Only a limited number of cases make it to the state Supreme Court.

There are 15 Superior Court judges and nine Commonwealth Court judges. The final court of appeals is the seven-member state Supreme Court.

What are judges’ minimum qualifications?

In addition to citizenship and residency requirements, most judges must be members of the state Supreme Court Bar. Magisterial District Court judges must pass an exam.

Groups like the state Bar Association also vet candidates and issue ratings to help educate voters.

How long are the terms?

Common Pleas and appellate judges serve 10-year terms, while lower court judges serve for six years.

How much do judges make?

In 2021, salaries range from $93,338 for Magisterial District Court judges to $221,295 for the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

Which party has control of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court?

Democrats have a 5-2 majority on the court — an advantage they’ve held since they won three open seats in 2015.

What are some high-profile decisions by the Pa. Supreme Court in recent years?

The high court made a splash in 2018 when it threw out Pennsylvania’s congressional map, ruling that it was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander designed to benefit Republicans. The court imposed a new map, helping Democrats pick up seats in Congress.

In 2020, the court heard multiple election-related cases and ruled on disputes arising from the Wolf administration’s coronavirus restrictions.

Which judges are on the ballot in 2021?

The highest-profile race is for a seat on the Supreme Court. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, a Republican, will retire at the end of the year after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 75. Four candidates are running for the open seat in the May 18 primary election.

Appeals court Judge Maria McLaughlin, a former prosecutor in the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Running in the Republican primary are Paula Patrick, a Philadelphia trial judge, and appeals court judges Patricia McCullough, of Allegheny County, and Kevin Brobson, of Dauphin County. Brobson won the state GOP’s endorsement.

There are also two open seats on Commonwealth Court and one on Superior Court. Lower court elections vary by district.

The general election is Nov. 2.

Do judicial candidates campaign like any other politician?

They face different rules than candidates for other state elected offices.

Judicial candidates are allowed to express their personal opinions. But they may not “make any statement that would reasonably be expected to affect the outcome or impair the fairness of a matter pending or impending in any court,” according to the state Code of Judicial Conduct.

Judicial candidates are prohibited from directly raising money, but supporters may do so for their campaigns.

The campaigns can get expensive. Total spending in the high-stakes 2015 Supreme Court race exceeded $16 million, setting a national record for a state supreme court election, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

How ballot position works

Where candidates’ names appear on the ballot can play a big role in elections in which voters tend to know less about the people running and the issues.

Research has shown that candidates who draw a spot in the first column tend to do better.

For the 2021 primary, 17 Democrats will appear on the ballot for Philadelphia Common Pleas Court. Voters can choose up to eight — the number of open seats on the bench.

But the average voter might not be familiar with all those candidates, whose names are arranged in multiple columns on the ballot based on the results from a lottery held in Harrisburg.

The practice has long been criticized. Some lawmakers have proposed changing the system so that ballots are randomly ordered across precincts.

What’s judicial redistricting?

Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg proposed a constitutional amendment that would change the way appellate judges are elected.

Currently, appeals court judges are selected in statewide elections, just like the governor and other statewide officeholders.

Under the proposed amendment, candidates for appeals court would run in regional districts drawn by the legislature. So a candidate from Southeastern Pennsylvania would not face voters from the central and western parts of the state, and vice versa.

Republican proponents say the measure would increase geographic diversity on the courts. Democrats and nonpartisan government watchdogs oppose the effort and call it “judicial gerrymandering,” saying it would politicize the courts.

The amendment passed the GOP-controlled legislature last year, and Republicans had been considering putting the question to voters on the primary ballot.

But constitutional amendments must pass twice in consecutive sessions, and the proposal stalled earlier this year.

Lawmakers could try to revive the issue to put the amendment on the November ballot.

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