Pennsylvania Bar Association
- Background on the association
Federal Court System
- Description of the federal court system and how it operates
Pennsylvania Court System
- Description of the Pennsylvania courts and how they operate
Administrative Law Judges
- Explanation of the different administrative law judges in Pennsylvania
- Background on the Sunshine Act
Frequently Asked Questions
- Commonly asked questions about the Pennsylvania legal system and Pennsylvania lawyers
Pennsylvania State Government Agencies
- A list of important state government agencies and contact information
- An extensive glossary of frequently used legal terms
PENNSYLVANIA BAR ASSOCIATION
The Pennsylvania Bar Association is a nonprofit organization that represents the
interests of 27,000 Pennsylvania lawyers. Incorporated in 1895, the mission of the
Pennsylvania Bar Association is:
- to advance the science of jurisprudence;
- to promote the administration of justice;
- to see that no one, on account of poverty, is denied his or her legal rights;
- to secure proper legislation;
- to encourage thorough legal education;
- to uphold the honor and dignity of the Bar;
- to cultivate cordial relations among lawyers in Pennsylvania; and
- to perpetuate the history of the profession and the memory of its members.
Any lawyer in good standing who is admitted to practice law in Pennsylvania is eligible
to be a member of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
The Pennsylvania Bar Association would like to thank the following individuals for
helping to update A Reporter’s Guide to the Law:
Craig B. Neely, Esq. (chair of the project)
Sheldon Bass, Esq., Philadelphia Municipal Court
Natalie Klyashtorny, Esq., Willig, Williams & Davidson
Kimberly Neeb, Esq., Willig, Williams & Davidson
Amy Rosenberger, Esq., Willig, Williams & Davidson
Linda Smith, Esq., Dilworth & Paxton LLP
Gregory A. Stapp, Esq., Mathers & Dincher PC
David K. Trevaskis, Esq., executive director, Temple-LEAP
Matthew I. Whitehorn, Esq., Willig, Williams & Davidson
FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM
The Founding Fathers of the United States considered an independent federal judiciary
essential to ensure fairness and equal justice for all citizens of the United States. As
such, the Constitution was drafted to promote judicial independence in two major ways.
First, federal judges are appointed for life, and they only may be removed from office
through impeachment and conviction by Congress of "Treason, Bribery, or other High
Crimes and Misdemeanors." Second, the Constitution provides that the compensation of
federal judges "shall not be diminished during their Continuance in Office,"
which means that neither the president nor Congress can reduce the salary of a federal
judge. These two protections allow an independent judiciary to decide cases free from
popular passion and political influence.
Article III of the Constitution gives Congress the power to create federal courts other
than the Supreme Court and to determine their jurisdiction. It is Congress, not the
judiciary, that controls the type of cases addressed in the federal courts. Congress has
three basic responsibilities that determine how the courts will operate. First, it decides
how many judges there should be and where they will work. Second, through the confirmation
process, Congress determines which of the president's judicial nominees ultimately become
federal judges. Third, Congress approves the federal courts' budgets and appropriates
money for the judiciary to operate. The judiciary’s budget is a very small part
(substantially less than one percent) of the entire federal budget.
Under the Constitution, the president appoints federal judges with the "advice and
consent" of the Senate. The president usually consults senators or other elected
officials concerning candidates for vacancies in the federal courts. The president’s
power to appoint new federal judges is not the judiciary’s only interaction with the
executive branch. The Department of Justice, which is responsible for prosecuting federal
crimes and for representing the government in civil cases, is the most frequent litigator
in the federal court system. Several other executive branch agencies affect the operations
of the courts as well. The United States Marshal Service, for example, provides security
for federal courthouses and judges, and the General Services Administration builds and
maintains federal courthouses.
Within the executive branch there are some specialized subject matter courts, and
numerous federal administrative agencies that adjudicate disputes involving specific
federal laws and benefits programs. These courts include the United States Tax Court, the
United States Court of Military Appeals and the United States Court of Veterans Appeals.
Although these courts and agencies are not part of the judiciary established under Article
III of the Constitution, appeals of their decisions typically may be taken to Article III
With very limited exceptions, each step of the federal judicial process is open to the
public. An individual who wishes to observe a court in session may do so. Anyone may
review the pleadings and other papers filed in a case by going to the clerk of court's
office and asking for the appropriate case file. Unlike most of the state courts, however,
the federal courts generally do not permit television or radio coverage of trial court
Breakdown of the Federal Courts
The United States Supreme Court is the highest court in the federal judiciary. The
Supreme Court consists of the Chief Justice of the United States and eight associate
justices. At its discretion, and within certain guidelines established by Congress, the
Supreme Court each year hears a limited number of the cases on which it is asked to rule.
Those cases may begin in the federal or state courts and usually involve important
questions regarding the Constitution or federal law. In recent years, the Supreme Court
has heard fewer cases, allowing more decisions of the lower federal courts to stand as the
Congress has established two levels of federal courts under the Supreme Court: the
trial courts and the appellate courts. The United States District Courts are the trial
courts of the federal court system. Within limits set by Congress and the Constitution,
the U.S. District Courts have jurisdiction to hear nearly all categories of federal cases,
including both civil and criminal matters. There are 94 federal judicial districts,
including at least one district in each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Each district includes a United States Bankruptcy Court as a unit of the District Court.
Three territories of the United States -- the Virgin Islands, Guam and the Northern
Mariana Islands -- have District Courts that hear federal cases, including bankruptcy
There are two special trial courts with nationwide jurisdiction over certain types of
cases: the Court of International Trade, which addresses cases involving international
trade and customs issues; and the United States Court of Federal Claims, which has
jurisdiction over most claims for money damages and, in cases against the United States,
disputes over federal contracts, unlawful "takings" of private property by the
federal government and a variety of other claims.
The 94 judicial districts are organized into 13 United States Circuit Courts. Twelve of
the Circuit Courts are organized regionally, each of which has a United States Court of
Appeals. The Courts of Appeals hear appeals from the District Courts located within its
circuit, as well as appeals from decisions of federal administrative agencies. In
addition, the 13th Circuit Court, the Court of Appeals for the federal circuit, has
nationwide jurisdiction to hear appeals in specialized cases, such as those involving
patent laws and cases decided by the Court of International Trade and the Court of Federal
Pennsylvania is located in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which also includes
Delaware, New Jersey and the Virgin Islands. The Third Circuit is based in Philadelphia
and has 14 authorized judgeships. Within Pennsylvania, there are three United States
District Courts: the eastern district with 22 authorized judgeships located in
Philadelphia; the middle district with six authorized judgeships located in Scranton; and
the western district with 10 authorized judgeships located in Pittsburgh.
Types of Federal Cases
Before a federal court can hear a case or "exercise its jurisdiction,"
certain conditions must be met. First, under the Constitution, federal courts may only
exercise "judicial" powers. This means that federal judges may interpret the law
only through the resolution of actual legal disputes, referred to in Article III of the
Constitution as "Cases or Controversies." A court cannot attempt to correct a
problem on its own initiative or answer a hypothetical legal question. Second, the
plaintiff in a federal lawsuit also must have legal "standing" to ask the court
for a decision. This means the plaintiff must have been aggrieved or legally harmed in
some way by the defendant. Third, the case must present a category of dispute that the law
in question was designed to address. It also must be a complaint that the court is
authorized, under the Constitution or federal law, to hear and grant appropriate relief to
the plaintiff. Finally, the case cannot be "moot." The case must present an
ongoing problem for the court to resolve. The federal courts are courts of limited
jurisdiction because they only may decide certain types of cases as provided by Congress
or as identified in the Constitution.
There are two main sources of the cases coming before the federal courts: federal
question jurisdiction and diversity jurisdiction. A case that raises a federal question
may be filed in federal court. Examples of such cases might include a claim by an
individual for entitlement to money under a federal government program such as Social
Security, a claim by the government that someone has violated federal laws or a challenge
to actions taken by a federal agency. A case also may be filed in federal court based on
the "diversity of citizenship" of the litigants, such as between citizens of
different states or between United States citizens and those of another country. To ensure
fairness to out-of-state litigants, the Constitution provides that such cases may be heard
in federal court. An important limit to diversity jurisdiction is that only cases
involving more than $75,000 in potential damages may be filed in a federal court.
Moreover, any diversity jurisdiction case regardless of the amount of money involved may
be brought before a state court rather than a federal court.
Federal courts also have jurisdiction over all bankruptcy matters, which Congress has
determined should be addressed in federal courts rather than the state courts. Through the
bankruptcy process, individuals or businesses that can no longer pay their creditors, may
either seek a court-supervised liquidation of their assets or may reorganize their
financial affairs and work out a plan to pay off their debts.
PENNSYLVANIA COURT SYSTEM
The judicial system of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is defined and governed by
Article V of the Pennsylvania Constitution, as amended in 1968, and by the Judicial Code
of July 9, 1976, as amended. The judicial power of the commonwealth is vested in a unified
judicial system consisting of the Supreme Court, the Superior Court, the Commonwealth
Court, Courts of Common Pleas, Municipal and Traffic Courts in the City of Philadelphia,
District Courts and any other courts as may be provided by law. The Supreme Court is the
highest court of the commonwealth and holds the supreme judicial power. The Superior Court
is a statewide intermediate appellate court consisting of not less than 15 judges. The
Commonwealth Court is another statewide intermediate appellate court, which hears matters
primarily involved with administrative law, such as workers' compensation. The Courts of
Common Pleas are the general trial courts of the commonwealth.
The Supreme Court is Pennsylvania's highest judicial authority. The Supreme Court,
which meets in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, consists of seven justices who
serve 10-year terms. The Supreme Court exercises general supervisory and administrative
authority over all courts and district justices. The Supreme Court has the power to
prescribe general rules governing practice, procedure and conduct of all courts, district
justices and officers serving process or enforcing orders. The Supreme Court has exclusive
jurisdiction of appeals from final orders of the Courts of Common Pleas in eight specified
classes of cases. As a general rule, the Supreme Court has exclusive jurisdiction of
appeals from final orders of the Commonwealth Court entered in any matter that originally
was commenced in the Commonwealth Court. Upon petition of any party to a matter, final
orders of the Superior Court also may be reviewed for possible consideration by the entire
Supreme Court by any two of Court’s justices. It is called a certiorari system,
similar to the one used by the United States Supreme Court. Under a certiorari system, the
Supreme Court may grant such petitions in cases involving matters of statewide importance
where issues are undecided or have conflicting opinions of lower courts. In any matter
pending before any court involving an issue of immediate public importance, the Supreme
Court may, on its own motion or upon the petition of any party to the matter, assume
plenary (full and complete) jurisdiction and hear the matter.
The Superior Court is a statewide intermediate appellate court that hears all appeals
from the Courts of Common Pleas unless they have been assigned by law to the Commonwealth
Court, or chosen to be heard by the Supreme Court. The Superior Court consists of 15
judges who are elected to 10-year terms. The court meets in Philadelphia, Harrisburg and
Pittsburgh. One of its judges is elected president judge by the others on the court. The
Superior Court has exclusive appellate jurisdiction of all appeals from final orders of
the Courts of Common Pleas, without regard to the nature of the controversy or the amount
involved, except where the appeals are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Supreme or
Commonwealth courts. The judges generally sit in panels of three, although the court
occasionally sits in a panel of seven or more.
The Commonwealth Court is another statewide intermediate appellate court that was
formed by Article V, Section 4 of the Constitution of 1968. Nine judges, who are elected
to 10-year terms, serve on the Commonwealth Court. The court meets in Philadelphia,
Harrisburg and Pittsburgh and its president judge is elected by the other judges on the
court. Appeals to the Commonwealth Court generally consist of civil actions involving
municipalities or state administrative agencies and all eminent domain proceedings.
Appeals heard by the Commonwealth Court include workers' compensation appeals from the
Workers Compensation Appeal Board and employment compensation appeals from the
Unemployment Board of Review.
Courts of Common Pleas
The Courts of Common Pleas are divided geographically into 60 judicial districts. The
Pennsylvania Legislature determines how the districts are geographically aligned and the
number of judges for each Court of Common Pleas, which can range from one to 95. Each
judge is elected to a 10-year term. The Court of Common Pleas has unlimited original
jurisdiction in all cases except as otherwise provided by law. These exceptions are
limited to original jurisdiction of the Supreme, Superior or Commonwealth courts.
Divisions within a Court of Common Pleas include Criminal, Civil, Juvenile, Family and
Orphan's courts. The Orphan's Courts are courts of probate jurisdiction, which typically
handle matters such as adoptions, decedents estates, trusts, legacies, birth records,
marriage licenses and minors’ estates.
The Constitution provides for one magisterial judge in each judicial district (other than the City of Philadelphia). Magisterial judges are elected to six-year terms. In criminal cases involving misdemeanors or felonies, magisterial judges conduct preliminary arraignments and hearings and set bail. In prosecutions for summary offenses, magisterial judges conduct trials and impose sentences for summary convictions. Appeals from convictions for summary offenses are to the Court of Common Pleas, which hears the case de novo.
In civil cases, magisterial judges have jurisdiction over cases where the amount in controversy does not exceed $8,000, exclusive of interest and costs. Additionally, magisterial judges have jurisdiction over cases arising under the Landlord and Tenant Act of 1991, as amended. Any party aggrieved by the decision of a magisterial judge may appeal to the Court of Common Pleas for a hearing or trial de novo.
Philadelphia Municipal Court
Philadelphia County is unique in that it has its own Municipal Court. The Philadelphia
Municipal Court, which the Pennsylvania Legislature established in 1968 as a court of
limited jurisdiction, has 25 commissioned judges and several senior judges. Unlike
district justices, Municipal Court judges must be attorneys. They are elected to six-year
terms and stand for retention every six years. While there are no jury trials within the
Municipal Court system, there is a right to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas for a
trial de novo, which includes the right to a jury trial.
In civil actions and actions for fines and penalties by government agencies (e.g. fire,
health and zoning code violations, license fees and business taxes), the court's
jurisdiction is limited to claims not greater than $10,000, exclusive of interest and
costs. The limit is $15,000 for real estate and school taxes demanded by the City of
Philadelphia. The civil division has original jurisdiction with no money limit in
residential and commercial matters arising under the Pennsylvania Landlord and Tenant Act
of 1951. In addition, the Pennsylvania Legislature has authorized the court to enjoin
specified types of nuisances. A Municipal Court judge has the same contempt power as a
Court of Common Pleas judge.
The Municipal Court's Criminal Division processes every adult arrest in the City of
Philadelphia. Courtrooms are in the Criminal Justice Center and in several police district
buildings throughout Philadelphia. The criminal division handles preliminary arraignments,
preliminary hearings for felony cases and trials for misdemeanor cases where the maximum
prison sentence does not exceed five years. In addition, the Municipal Court tries all
summary offenses, except summary vehicle code offenses that are within the jurisdiction of
the Traffic Court of Philadelphia. Other Municipal Court departments include Private
Criminal Complaints and Emergency Protection From Abuse.
ADMINISTRATIVE LAW JUDGES
Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board
The Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board (PLRB) was established in 1937 as the
administrative agency that enforces the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act (the
commonwealth's equivalent of the National Labor Relations Act), the Police and Firemen's
Collective Bargaining Law (Act 111) and the Public Employee Relations Act (Act 195). Most
of the cases the PLRB hears involve public sector employees.
While the PLRB's functions are somewhat similar to the National Labor Relations Board,
its operating procedures are different. Hearings are conducted before a PLRB hearing
examiner that include representation and bargaining unit clarification proceedings
initiated by petition. These hearings also include unfair labor practice proceedings
initiated by the filing of a charge of unfair practices. The hearing examiner issues a
"Proposed Decision and Order," which becomes final and binding, unless a party
files exceptions to the ruling. Where exceptions are filed, the appointed members of the
PLRB consider the case on the record created before the hearing examiner and render a
final order sustaining and/or dismissing the exceptions. The PLRB's final order may be
appealed to the Commonwealth Court or the Court of Common Pleas. If the commonwealth is
the employer or the matter relates to Act 111, the final order is appealable directly to
the Commonwealth Court. If the employer is a public employer other than the commonwealth
and Act 195 is involved, the proper venue is the Court of Common Pleas in the county where
the employer is located. In that instance, the Common Pleas Court order then may be
appealed to the Commonwealth Court. Any party may request the Pennsylvania Supreme Court
to hear an appeal from a Commonwealth Court decision.
Unemployment Compensation Board Of Review
The Unemployment Compensation Board of Review (UCBR) was established in 1936 under the
Unemployment Compensation Law and is an administrative board of the Department of Labor
and Industry. It consists of three members who are appointed by the governor with the
approval of the Senate for six-year terms. The UCBR appoints referees to take testimony
and adjudicate appeals coming from local offices of the Bureau of Unemployment
Compensation Benefits and Allowances. Referees hear and decide disputes under the
supervision, direction and administrative control of the UCBR. The referee may affirm,
modify or reverse earlier findings of fact or determination by the local bureau office.
The referee's decision is deemed final unless the UCBR acts on its own motion or upon
application for a further review appeal brought before it. Decisions of the UCBR are
final, unless an appeal is filed. A decision of the UCBR may be appealed to the
Commonwealth Court. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court may take appeals on UCBR decisions on
allowance from the Commonwealth Court.
Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC) was established in 1955 to be an
administrative commission in the governor's office to enforce the Pennsylvania Human
Relations Act (PHRA). The PHRC is composed of 11 commissioners who are appointed by the
governor with Senate approval. Each commissioner serves a five-year term. The PHRC has the
authority to initiate an investigative hearing whenever a discrimination issue arises. The
hearing is held in the county where the problem exists. The PHRC also hears complaints
relating to unlawful discrimination in employment-related matters (i.e. hiring, firing,
promoting or transferring) where discrimination is alleged to have occurred on account of
race, color, religion, sex, age, national origin and with respect to disability, housing
or public accommodation matters. The PHRA applies to private sector employers with four or
more employees, commonwealth and political subdivision employers, as well as to
residential and commercial property transactions and other real estate matters.
In the event that the PHRC determines that the PHRA has been violated by an employer,
the PHRC has the authority to request that the Commonwealth Court or the appropriate Court
of Common Pleas enjoin the discriminatory conduct and order reinstatement or rehiring of
employees and/or rewarding back pay or other legal or equitable relief. The PHRC also can
impose civil penalties with respect to unlawful housing discrimination practices. The
complainant, the Attorney General or the PHRC itself, may seek enforcement of a PHRC order
or other appropriate relief. Additionally, if the PHRC, after an investigation declines to
pursue the cause itself, the complainant may institute a civil action in court.
Workers' Compensation Appeal Board
The Pennsylvania Workers' Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB), or its appointed Workers'
Compensation Judge (formerly known as a referee), hears contested claims for compensation
under the Pennsylvania Occupational Disease Act and Workers Compensation Act. The WCAB was
established in 1929 and consists of members appointed by the governor. Workers'
Compensation Judges are appointed by the secretary of the Department of Labor and Industry
and make decisions on contested claims. The judges hear testimony and act as fact finders.
An adjudication from a Workers' Compensation Judge may be appealed to the WCAB and from
the WCAB to the Commonwealth Court.
Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission
The Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission (PUC), created in 1937, regulates and
supervises intrastate rates and services of the commonwealth’s public utilities
including gas, electric, water, telephone and taxis and certain other common carriers. The
PUC consists of five members who are appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate
for five-year terms. The PUC has the authority to appoint administrative law judges from
qualified candidates who have taken a civil service examination. Administrative law judges
issue initial decisions, which become final unless the PUC takes action to modify them.
Administrative law judges also issue recommended decisions, which require further action
by the PUC to become final orders of the commission. Determinations made by the PUC are
binding upon all parties, unless set aside, annulled or modified upon judicial review.
Appeals from PUC determinations are to the Commonwealth Court.
Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board
The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (LCB), under the Liquor Code of 1951, regulates
the sale and distribution of alcohol within the commonwealth on a wholesale and retail
basis. The LCB consists of three members who are appointed by the governor and approved by
the Senate. It approves licenses, which allow for the distribution of beer and for the
importation of alcohol into Pennsylvania for vendors to then sell the alcohol to the
commonwealth to be resold to establishments and the public. A hearing examiner will hear
any licensing questions and provide recommended decisions to the LCB, which then will make
final decisions. An appeal of the LCB’s decision in a licensing matter is appealed de
novo to the Court of Common Pleas or, on rare occasions, to the Commonwealth Court. The
LCB also has administrative law judges (ALJs), who are appointed by the governor from a
list of candidates who have taken the civil service examination. The ALJs hear any
citations alleging violation of the liquor code. Citations for violations issued by the
State Police also are heard by ALJs. The ALJs are independent of the LCB. An appeal of an
ALJ’s decision first goes to the LCB. All following reviews go to the Court of Common
Pleas de novo.
THE SUNSHINE ACT
The Sunshine Act, the successor to the now-repealed Open Meetings Laws of 1957 and
1974, requires most official deliberations and all official actions of governmental bodies
to be conducted at public meetings. The original form of the Sunshine Act became effective
January 3, 1987 and has been the subject of minor revisions through the years. The basic
premise of the Sunshine Act, however, remains the same.
A convening body is an "agency" that is subject to the requirements of the
Sunshine Act if it is a political subdivision, school district, municipal authority and
any board or commission constituted by any of the foregoing. The Act applies to all
counties, cities, boroughs, townships and school districts, and also to all commissions,
committees and boards constituted by these agencies.
An agency must comply with the Sunshine Act when it meets to deliberate or take action
upon official business. A "meeting" is defined as a pre-arranged gathering of at
least a quorum of members who are meeting to deliberate agency business or to take
official action. If the gathering is determined to be a "meeting" within the
purview of the Sunshine Act, then the meeting’s date, time and location must be
advertised in a newspaper of general circulation at least 24 hours prior to the meeting.
During any convened meeting, the Sunshine Act requires all deliberations on official
matters to be conducted in public unless the subject matter of the deliberations falls
within the "Executive Session" exception to the general requirements of the
Sunshine Act. The Sunshine Act lists the following six reasons for holding an executive
session in which deliberations are held privately among the members of the agency:
- To discuss personnel matters, including hiring, promoting, disciplining or dismissing
specific public employees or officers, but does not include filling vacancies in any
- To hold information, strategy and negotiation sessions related to collective bargaining
agreements or arbitration;
- To consider the purchase or lease of real estate;
- To consult with an attorney regarding litigation or issues where identifiable complaints
are expected to be filed;
- To discuss agency business that would lead to disclosure of information recognized as
confidential or privileged under law, including initiation and conduct of investigations
of possible violations of the law and quasi-judicial deliberations; and
- For public colleges or universities to discuss matters of academic admission or
Although deliberations concerning these matters may be conducted privately, any
official action to be taken as a result of the deliberations must be taken publicly.
The most frequently cited reasons for holding executive sessions are discussions of
personnel issues, collective bargaining negotiations and legal matters. With regard to
personnel matters, issues involving appointment and termination of employment, terms and
conditions of employment, evaluation of performance, promotion or discipline of employees
or officers and removal of public officers, are all legitimate reasons for holding
executive sessions. Deliberations about appointing someone to fill a vacancy in an elected
position, however, is not a matter for consideration during executive session.
The Sunshine Act recognizes that discussions regarding collective bargaining agreements
are legitimate bases for an executive session. Among agency members, a body may obtain
information and discuss negotiation strategy. Agency members and bargaining
representatives may meet, discuss and negotiate bargaining agreements in executive
A local agency may need an executive session to meet with its attorney concerning
pending litigation or identifiable complaints that are expected eventually to be in
litigation. As a practical matter, potential legal liability is everywhere. By requiring
that only matters with expected "identifiable complaints" may be discussed, the
Sunshine Act attempts to limit private discussions to only those matters that have a
serious prospect of becoming litigation.
As previously noted, the Sunshine Act requires public notice of meetings. Regularly
scheduled meetings must be advertised at least once per year in a newspaper of general
circulation in the agency’s geographical region. The notice must be published at
least three days prior to the first meeting and contain the place, date and time of the
first meeting. The notice also must advertise the regularity of the meetings and be posted
in the principal office of the agency.
Public notices of rescheduled or special meetings must be in a newspaper of general
circulation at least 24 hours in advance of the rescheduled or special meeting and must be
posted in the principal office of the agency. Emergency meetings need not be advertised.
"Emergency Meetings," however, only may be held in urgent and extreme
circumstances when notice is impractical, such as during a natural disaster. Executive
sessions that do not result in official action need not be advertised.
Recognizing the importance of dialogue, the Sunshine Act also provides for public
participation during public meetings by requiring all agencies to allow reasonable
opportunities for public comment. "Reasonable opportunity" allows an agency to
impose reasonable time limits on public comment. Importantly, the act was amended in 1998
to require agencies to offer the opportunity for public comment prior to taking any
official action. An agency may deliberate before allowing public comment, but it must
allow public comment before taking a vote on any matter.
The Sunshine Act requires written minutes of all public meetings, including all
committees of municipal governing bodies. The minutes must include the date, time and
place of the meeting, the names of the members present, the substance of all official
actions, a record of all role call votes and the names of all citizens who appeared
officially at the meeting, along with the subjects of their testimonies. Each agency
member must cast all votes publicly to ensure that the votes are contained within recorded
minutes maintained by the agency.
With regard to violations of the Sunshine Act, the Courts of Common Pleas have original
jurisdiction to hear legal challenges involving local governments’ alleged
violations, and the Commonwealth Court has jurisdiction in cases involving state agencies.
The courts often enforce the Sunshine Act through injunctions or other appropriate
remedies. It also is within the discretion of the court to invalidate official actions or
deliberations taken at a meeting that are in violation of the Sunshine Act. The official
action is not automatically invalidated, however, since the court must look to the effect
of the violation on the entire decision-making process.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Do all Pennsylvania lawyers belong to the Pennsylvania Bar Association?
No. The Pennsylvania Bar Association is a voluntary professional bar association that
is separate from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Currently, two-thirds of
Pennsylvania’s lawyers belong to the Pennsylvania Bar Association. In some states,
the state bar is overseen by the State Supreme Court and bar membership is mandatory.
What entity in Pennsylvania regulates and monitors lawyers and their actions?
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court regulates all Pennsylvania lawyers through the following
boards/commissions: (all board members are appointed by the Supreme Court)
- Board of Law Examiners: The board administers the commonwealth’s bar
examination and reviews admissions applications for all individuals wishing to sit for the
bar exam. The board also reviews applications for practicing lawyers in other states who
wish to be admitted to the Pennsylvania bar without sitting for the exam.
- Continuing Legal Education Board: In 1992, Pennsylvania became the 38th state in
the country to institute mandatory continuing legal education (CLE) for lawyers. As such,
this board was created to administer and update the CLE rules, monitor lawyers’
fulfillment of the requirements and accredit and monitor CLE providers and courses.
- Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court: The Disciplinary Board considers and
investigates the conduct of all Pennsylvania lawyers in accordance with the Pennsylvania
Rules of Professional Conduct. The Disciplinary Board has the authority to discipline
lawyers in the following ways: informal admonition; private reprimand; probation; public
censure; suspension; and disbarment.
- Interest on Lawyers Trust Account Board (IOLTA Board): The IOLTA Board raises,
manages and distributes funds to provide civil legal services to the poor and
disadvantaged of Pennsylvania. It is a mandatory program for Pennsylvania lawyers.
- Pennsylvania Lawyers Fund for Client Security: This fund was established in 1982
by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to help clients recover money and/or property stolen
from them by their lawyers. Clients may receive up to $50,000 for a claim. It is funded
through a special assessment fee paid by all lawyers admitted to practice in Pennsylvania.
Where should someone call with a complaint about a lawyer?
The Disciplinary Board at one of the following numbers: if the lawyer practices in
Philadelphia County, (215) 560-6296; the rest of eastern Pennsylvania, (610) 270-1896;
central Pennsylvania, (717) 772-8572; and western Pennsylvania, (412) 565-3173.
How can someone find out if a lawyer is licensed to practice in Pennsylvania?
Contact the Attorney Registration Office of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court at (717)
How are judicial complaints handled in Pennsylvania, including judges and district
All judicial complaints are referred to the Judicial Conduct Board. The board is
located in Harrisburg at (717) 234-7911.
How can someone find out if a lawyer is in good standing in Pennsylvania with no
Contact the Disciplinary Board at (717) 231-3380.
How many law schools are in Pennsylvania and where are they located?
Pennsylvania has eight law schools:
Beasley School of Law at Temple University -- (800) 864-5386
Dickinson School of Law of The Pennsylvania State University -- (717) 240-5000
Drexel University College of Law - (215) 571-4785
Duquesne University School of Law -- (412) 396-6300
University of Pennsylvania School of Law -- (215) 898-7483
University of Pittsburgh School of Law -- (412) 648-1400
Villanova University School of Law -- (610) 519-7000
Widener University School of Law -- (717) 541-3900
Can lawyers belong to a bar association in their communities or counties?
Yes. There are 65 local and county bar associations in Pennsylvania, which operate
independently of the Pennsylvania Bar Association.
PENNSYLVANIA STATE GOVERNMENT OFFICES
This list includes selected departments, boards, bureaus, councils and offices. The
telephone numbers listed are for the organizations' press or main offices. If you
would like other telephone numbers than the ones listed below, call (717) 787-2121. The
area code for all numbers listed below is (717) unless otherwise indicated.
Administration, Office of 783-1116
308 Capitol Building
Aging, Dept. of 783-1550
Forum Place, 555 Walnut St., 5th Floor
Aging, Pa. Council on 783-1924
Forum Place, 555 Walnut St.
Agriculture, Dept. of 787-5085
2301 N. Cameron St.
Bureau of Drug and Alcohol Programs 783-8200
(a.k.a Alcohol Abuse, Governor's Council on Drug and)
02 Kline Plaza
See Health, Dept. of
Arts, Pa. Council on 787-6883 ext. 3039
216 Finance Bldg.
Attorney General, Office of 787-5211
16th Floor, Strawberry Square
Auditor General, Dept. of 787-1381
224 Finance Bldg.
Banking, Dept. of 787-2112
333 Market St., 16th Fl., Harristown II
Budget, Office of the 783-1116
(Governor's Executive Offices)
308 Main Capitol Building
Harrisburg, PA 17120
Civil Service Commission 787-7811
P.O. Box 569
Claims, Board of 787-3325
200 N. Third St., Suite 700
Community and Economic
Development, Dept. of 783-1132
Commonwealth Keystone Bldg.
400 North St., 4th Floor
Conservation and Natural Resources, Dept. of 772-9104
Rachel Carson State Office Bldg., 400 Market St., 7th Floor
Consumer Advocate, Office of 787-5048
(Attorney General's Office)
555 Walnut St.
Consumer Protection, Bureau of 787-5211
(Attorney General's Office)
16th Floor, Strawberry Square
Corporation Bureau 783-1621
(Dept. of State)
308 North Office Bldg., Harrisburg 17120
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 8722, Harrisburg 17105-8722
UCC Division: P.O. Box 8721, Harrisburg 17105-8721
Corrections Department 975-4862
2520 Lisburn Road
Camp Hill, PA 17011
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 598, Camp Hill 17001-0598
Crime and Delinquency, Pa. Commission on 800-692-7292
3101 N. Front Street, P.O. Box 1167
Crime Victim's Compensation Board 783-5153
PCCD Bldg, 3101 N. Front Street
Criminal Investigation & Prosecution Section 787-5211
(Attorney General's Office)
16th Floor, Strawberry Square, Harrisburg 17120
Education, Dept. of 783-9802
333 Market St., 10th Floor
Emergency Management Agency, PA 651-2139
(Office of Homeland Security)
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 3321, Harrisburg 17105
2605 Interstate Dr., Harrisburg 17110
Environmental Hearing Board 787-3483
2nd Fl., Rachel Carson State Office Bldg.
400 Market St., P.O. Box 8457
Environmental Protection, Dept. of 772-1856
RCSOB, P.O. Box 2063, Harrisburg 17105-2063
Ethics Commission, State 800-932-0936
309 Finance Bldg., P.O. Box 11470
Fish and Boat Commission. 705-7800
1601 Elmerton Avenue. P.O. Box 67000
Game Commission, Pa. 787-7015
2001 Elmerton Avenue
General Counsel, Office of 787-2551
333 Market St., 17th Floor
Harrisburg, PA 17101
General Services, Executive Office 787-3197
515 North Office Bldg.
Governor's Action Center (800) 932-0784
402 Finance Bldg., Harrisburg 17120
Governor's Office 783-1116
308 Main Capitol Bldg.
Health, Dept. of 787-1783
806 Health and Welfare Bldg.,
Higher Education Assistance Agency, Pa. (PHEAA) 720-2509
1200 N. 7th St.
Higher Educational Facilities Authority 975-2204
1035 Mumma Rd.
Higher Education, State System of 720-4054
Dixon University Center
2986 N. Second Street
Homeland Security, Office of 651-2715
2605 Interstate Drive
Harrisburg, PA 17110
House of Representatives, Pa
129 Main Capitol Bldg.
Housing Finance Agency, Pa. 780-3915
211 N. Front St.
Human Relations Commission, Pa. 783-1116
101 S. Second St., Suite 300
Independent Regulatory Review Comm. 783-5417
14th Fl., 333 Market St.
Insurance, Dept. of 787-3289
1326 Strawberry Square
Joint State Government Commission 787-4397
108 Finance Bldg.
Labor and Industry, Dept. of 787-7530
7th & Forrester Sts.
Labor & Industry Bldg.
Labor Law Compliance, Bureau of 787-7530
(Dept. of Labor and Industry)
Room 1301, Labor and Industry Bldg.
Labor Relations Board, PA 787-7530
(Dept. of Labor)
418 Labor and Industry Bldg., Room 1722
Legislative Reference Bureau 787-4223
641 Main Capitol Bldg.
Lieutenant Governor's Office 787-3300
200 Main Capitol Bldg.
Liquor Control Board 783-8864
Northwest Office Bldg., Room 515
Local Government Commission 787-7680
Forum Place, 555 Walnut Street
Harrisburg, PA 17101
Mailing Address: Senate Box 203078, Harrisburg 17120-3078
Medical Professional Liability Catastrophe
Loss Fund (MCARE Fund) 783-3770
30 N. Third St., 8th Floor
Harrisburg, PA 17101
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 12030, Harrisburg, PA 17108
Military Affairs, Dept. of 861-8720
Fort Indiantown Gap
Milk Marketing Board 787-4194
110 Agriculture Bldg., 2301 N. Cameron St.
Municipal Retirement System, Pa. 800-622-7968
Suite 301, Eastgate Building
1010 N. Seventh Street, P.O. Box 1165
Pardons, Board of 787-2596
15th Fl., 333 Market St.
(Pennsylvania Infrastructure Investment Authority)
22 South 3rd St.
Probation and Parole, Board of 787-5699
1101 S. Front St.
Professional and Occupational Affairs, Bureau of 787-8503
(Dept. of State)
2601 N. Third St.
Public School Building Authority 975-2200
1035 Mumma Road
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 990, Camp Hill 17001
Public School Employees' Retirement System 720-4734
5 N. 5th Street, P.O. Box 125
Public Utility Commission 787-9504
Commonwealth Keystone Bldg., P.O. Box 3265
Public Welfare, Dept. of 787-4592
7th & Forrester Sts., P.O. Box 2675
Revenue, Dept. of 787-6960
10th Fl., Strawberry Sq.
Securities Commission, Pa 787-8061
1109 State Office Bldg., Broad & Spring Garden Sts.
Eastgate Bldg., 2nd Fl., 1010 N. 7th St.
Main Capitol Bldg., Harrisburg 17120-0029
Communications Officer 787-6725
State, Dept. of 783-1621
302 North Office Bldg.
State Police, Pa. 783-5556
3rd Floor Department Headquarters
1800 Elmerton Ave.
Transportation, Dept. of 783-8800
Commonwealth Keystone Building, 8th Floor
400 North Street
Senior Advisor to the State Treasurer 787-2991
State Treasurer 787-2465
Turnpike Commission, Pa. 939-9551, ext. 2934
700 S. Eisenhower Blvd.
Middletown, PA 17057
Mailing Address: P.O. Box 67676, Harrisburg 17106-7676
Vital Records, Div. of (724) 656-3100
(Dept. of Health)
101 South Mercer Street
P.O. Box 1528
New Castle 16103
Workers' Compensation, Bureau of 787-7530
(Dept. of Labor & Industry)
1171 S. Cameron St., Room 103
Workers' Compensation Appeal Board 787-7840
Capitol Associates Bldg., 3rd Floor
901 N. Seventh St.
Abstract of Record - A complete history in short. An abbreviated form of the case as
found in the court record.
Abstract of Title - An abbreviated chronological history of the ownership of a parcel
Abuse of Process - The improper use by any party of legal proceedings for the sole
purpose of forcing another party to yield to its demands.
Acceleration Clause - A clause in a contract which states that if interest or an
installment is not paid timely, the entire debt becomes payable immediately.
Accessory - In criminal law, a person who assists another in the commission of a crime,
either before or after the fact. In zoning law, a use of real property that is not its
Acknowledgment - A sworn declaration by a person before an official, such as a notary
public, that he or she executed a legal document or that such a document is genuine.
Acquit - To release from an obligation or liability. In criminal law, to pronounce
Action in Persona - An action against a person or other entity, founded on a personal
Action in Rem - An action involving rights or interests in a specific object, usually
an item of personal property.
Ad Hoc - "For this." Most frequently used to refer to a person, committee or
other body that has been commissioned to serve a single or sole function. Also, used to
refer to decisions that are made on a case-by-case basis.
Adjudication - Giving or pronouncing a judgment or decree. It is also the judgment
given. In juvenile court, it refers to a hearing determining a juvenile’s guilt or
Administrator/Trix - In estate law, a person appointed by the court to settle the
estate of a deceased person. Administrators are appointed when there is no will, or when
there is a will but the named executor/trix has died, resigned, or is otherwise unable to
serve in the appointed capacity. Duties of an administrator/trix are similar to those of
Admission - A written or oral statement by an individual that certain facts are true.
Adversary System - The system of trial practice in which each opposing party has a full
opportunity to present and establish opposing contentions before the court.
Adverse Possession - A method of acquiring title to land by possessing the land for a
certain period of time and under certain conditions, whereby ownership is vested in an
individual who has neither a deed nor other written evidence of ownership of the real
Affidavit - A written statement of facts sworn to by the person making the statement.
Affirmative Defense - A defense in which the facts are peculiarly within the
defendant’s own knowledge, and for which the defendant is required to produce the
Agent - Someone who acts for another who is commonly referred to as the principal.
Under the rule of respondent superior, a principal may be held liable for the wrongful
acts or omissions of his or her agents.
Alimony - Financial support that one spouse pays to the other spouse after a divorce
decree has been entered.
Alimony Pendente Lite - Alimony paid to a party in a divorce prior to a divorce decree
Allegation - The declaration made in a pleading that presents what the party expects to
Allocatur - "It is allowed." A petition for allowance of appeal to the
Pennsylvania Supreme Court that requests that the court grant allocatur, which is the
Supreme Court’s exercising its discretion to hear a case.
Amendment - A modification, addition or change of the law. Also, the correction or
alteration of a matter in a pending legal proceeding.
Amicus Curiae - "A friend of the Court." It can refer to an attorney who
volunteers information on some matter of law that the court is considering, or to a person
not directly involved in a lawsuit who is permitted to introduce evidence or arguments to
protect his interests. An amicus curiae brief is one submitted by a non-party to a case to
aid the court in gaining information or to urge a particular result on behalf of the
public or a private third party who would be indirectly affected by the resolution of the
Amortization - The payment of a debt by installments; usually refers to the allocation
of installment debt payments between principal and interest.
Ancillary Bill or Suit - A bill or suit growing out of or auxiliary to another action
Ancillary Jurisdiction - In federal courts, the court’s taking jurisdiction over a
case because it is related to a pending federal case.
Annulment - A court’s voiding of a marriage due to conditions that existed prior
to the marriage that would have prevented a valid marriage from being entered into between
Answer - A pleading by which a defendant responds to a plaintiff’s allegations of
law and fact.
Ante in Legal Writing - Abbreviation that refers the reader to a latter portion of the
Appeal - A procedure in which a party seeks to have a higher court reverse or modify a
judgment or final order of a lower court or administrative agency. Appeals generally must
be made on the grounds that the lower court misinterpreted or misapplied the law or that
it made incorrect or unsupported findings of fact.
Appearance - A filing made by an attorney notifying the court of his or her
representation of a party.
Appellant - The party appealing a decision or a judgment to a higher court.
Appellate Court - A court having jurisdiction of appeal and review; compare "Trial
Appellee - The party who has not filed an appeal from a lower court’s decision,
but against whom an appeal was taken.
Arraignment - In criminal law, the proceeding in which an accused is brought before the
court to answer to a criminal charge. At an "arraignment," a defendant pleads
guilty or not guilty, and the arraignment initiates the running of time periods relevant
to the prosecution and defense of a criminal case. See also "Preliminary
Arrest of Judgment - A court’s order that prevents execution on a previously
issued judgment, either in civil or criminal law.
Assault - An attempt, with unlawful force or threat of force, to inflict bodily injury
upon another, accompanied by the apparent present ability on the part of the actor to
inflict the injury.
Assumpsit - "He promised." It refers to a promise or agreement, written or
oral that has not been sworn to under seal. Under previous Pennsylvania law, it referred
to a suit to recover damages from a party because of a breach of contract.
Assumption of the Risk - In tort law, an affirmative defense in a personal injury suit.
The defense is available when a plaintiff voluntarily encounters a known risk, and that
risk causes the plaintiff injury.
At Issue - A point of fact or law disputed between parties. The term is often used by
the court to introduce a disputed point.
Attachment - The act of taking, apprehending or seizing persons or property by a writ,
summons or order to bring a person or property into legal custody. It’s used to bring
a person to court, acquire jurisdiction over seized property, compel appearances, furnish
securities for debt or costs and to seize a fund in the hands of a third person.
Attorney of Record - An attorney who has entered his or her appearance for a party in
the permanent records or files of the court.
Bail - The amount of security required to effect the release of a person arrested or
imprisoned and to ensure his or her court appearance at a specified time and place.
Bail Bond - A signed obligation in which a surety assures the presence of a criminal
defendant at future court appearances.
Bailiff - A court attendant whose duties include keeping order in the courtroom and
having custody of a jury.
Bankruptcy - The condition of owing more debts than the amount of assets owned.
Bankruptcy courts are federal courts and have jurisdiction over bankruptcy filings made by
individuals, partnerships, corporations or any other recognized entity.
Bar - The part of a courtroom, enclosed by a railing, where the judges and lawyers sit.
Also, the term denotes the collective members of the legal profession.
Bar Examination - A test administered to law school graduates to determine whether they
possess the knowledge and qualification necessary to practice law in a jurisdiction. To
obtain a license to practice law, an individual must successfully pass a bar examination.
Battery - The use of physical force against another. It also refers to any physical
contact to which an individual has not consented.
Bench - The judge or judges of a court, and the court itself. It also is the physical
location where a judge sits.
Bench Warrant - A warrant issued by the court for the attachment or arrest of a person.
Best Evidence Rule - The rule of evidence which states that only the most authoritative
and original evidence shall be admitted in a hearing or trial.
Bill of Particulars - A criminal defendant’s filing with the court, requesting
that the prosecution provide more detailed facts than were contained in a Criminal
Binding Instruction - An instruction to a jury that if it finds certain conditions to
be true, then it must find for a particular party.
Bind Over - To hold for trial or for further inquiry. It usually refers to the action
of a district justice or municipal court, in which an accused is held for trial in a
criminal case following a preliminary hearing.
Brief - A written or printed document that is prepared by counsel and filed in court
that sets forth the facts and law in support of a party’s position.
Burden of Production - The requirement of a party to produce at least some facts to
support his or her position at a trial or hearing.
Burden of Proof - The duty of a party to prove facts in dispute. Depending upon the
issue being litigated, the burden of proof may be on the plaintiff or defendant in a civil
case. In a criminal case, the burden of proof almost is always on the prosecution. Burden
of proof varies between different types of cases and may be by the "preponderance of
the evidence," "clear and convincing" or "beyond a reasonable
Burglary - Breaking into and entering a building or structure with the intent to commit
a felony therein.
Caption - The heading on a pleading that shows the name of the court, the name of the
parties and the docket number of the case, as well as other pertinent information.
Cause of Action - A claim that is sufficient enough in law and fact to submit to a
court for disposition.
Certificate of Title - A document, usually bearing the seal of a government authority,
evidencing ownership of a particular piece of personal property.
Certiorari - An original writ commanding a public officer to certify or return records
of proceedings for judicial review. The writ is often used as a means of gaining appellate
review. In the United States Supreme Court and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the writ is
discretionary with the court, such that in most cases both courts decide which cases they
will hear and which cases they will not hear.
Challenge to the Array - Questioning the qualifications of an entire jury panel,
usually on the grounds of partiality or some fault in the summoning process. More
recently, the challenge often is used by criminal defendants to question the
appropriateness of peremptory strikes used by a prosecutor.
Challenge for Cause - A challenge to a prospective juror’s ability to sit as a
juror in a particular case as a result of the prospective juror’s bias, prejudice or
other circumstance that would prevent the juror from being able to deliberate fairly and
Change of Venire - The summoning, selecting and impaneling of a jury from a county
other than the one in which a trial is held. Venire may be changed by the court when it
determines that a fair and impartial trial can not be had in the county where the case is
pending, usually because of extensive pretrial publicity.
Change of Venue - The transfer of a suit from one county to another county, or from one
court to another court in the same county or district.
Charge - The judge’s instructions to the jury detailing the law relevant to a
case, and how the law must be applied. The charge always is given immediately before the
jury retires to deliberate. The term also is often used to refer to an accusation made in
a criminal case.
Chattel - An item of tangible personal property.
Circuit Court - A court that has jurisdiction over various counties or districts.
Circumstantial Evidence - All evidence of an indirect nature. Facts that the court or
jury may determine to be true from known circumstances, or that are established by
Citation to Legal Authority - Reference to a statute, code, regulation, court decision
or constitutional provision to support a statement of the law. It also refers to a
quotation from a body of law.
Civil Action - A lawsuit between parties in which a party or parties allege that
another party or parties committed a wrongful act, resulting in a loss to the other party
Clerk of Courts - The officer who generally acts as the administrative agent of the
Court of Common Pleas in criminal matters. The clerk of courts’ responsibilities
include, but are not limited to, accepting filings in criminal cases, recording orders of
court in criminal matters and calculating sentences imposed in criminal matters.
Code - A collection or compendium of laws systematically arranged and promulgated by
Codicil - A supplement or addition to a will.
Collateral Estoppel - Commonly referred to as "issue preclusion." When a
court renders a decision in a case based upon its disposition of certain issues, those
same issues cannot be re-litigated in another case in which a party to the previous case,
who litigated or had the opportunity to litigate the decided issues, participated.
Commit - To order that a person be institutionalized - in the case of an adult criminal
defendant, to a prison; in the case of a juvenile defendant, to a juvenile detention
center, or some other secure juvenile facility; in the case of an individual who is
committed under the mental health act, to a mental institution.
Common Law - Law based on judicial precedent, rather than on legislative enactments.
Common Law Marriage - A marriage between two people without a ceremony, but in which
the parties consider themselves married and hold themselves out to the public as married.
Commutation - Reduction of a criminal defendant’s sentence, most often referring
to changing punishment from a death sentence to life imprisonment.
Comparative Negligence - The reduction in a plaintiff’s recovery by the percentage
amount of negligence that the plaintiff committed in causing his or her injuries. A
plaintiff in Pennsylvania may recover, despite his or her own negligence, if his or her
negligence was less than fifty-percent of the cause of the injuries. The term also refers
to the allocation of percentages of negligence between multiple defendants.
Compensatory Damages - Damages recoverable in a civil action to compensate a plaintiff
for losses or damages incurred as a result of the acts of another. The purpose of
compensatory damages is to place the plaintiff in the position that he or she would have
been in if the incident giving rise to the civil action had not occurred. Examples of
compensatory damages are economic damages, such as lost wages and medical bills, and
non-economic damages, such as pain, suffering and disfigurement.
Competency - A witness’ possessing the necessary qualifications to render the
witness legally fit to testify.
Complainant - Synonymous with "plaintiff."
Complaint - The first or initial pleading filed by a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit. Also
refers to the written document detailing criminal charges filed against a criminal
Concurrent Sentences - Sentences for more than one crime, in which the sentences for
the crimes are served simultaneously, rather than successively. See also
Condemnation - The legal process by which private real estate is appropriated for
public use without the owner’s consent, but for which the owner is paid just
compensation by the public body for such appropriation.
Consecutive Sentences - Sentences for more than one crime, in which a criminal
defendant must complete one sentence before beginning to serve a second or subsequent
sentence. See also "Concurrent Sentences."
Consent Decree - An agreement of parties to a lawsuit, based upon stipulated facts,
which is sanctioned by the court. It also is used to refer to a disposition of criminal
charges under the Pennsylvania Juvenile Act, whereby a juvenile admits to participation in
criminal activity, but does not obtain a record of conviction.
Consideration - A promise in a contract whereby a party agrees to convey to another
party some benefit or to forgo an existing liability.
Contempt of Court - An intentional act designed to obstruct a court’s
administration of justice. Direct contempt is committed in the immediate presence of the
court. Indirect contempt is the failure or refusal to obey lawful court orders.
Contingent Fee - An attorney’s fee calculated as a percentage of recovery made on
behalf of a client.
Continuance - A postponement granted by the court. A continuance may be granted by the
court at the request of either or both parties, or may be made by the court on its own
Contract - An enforceable oral or written agreement between two or more parties.
Contributory Negligence - The concept that a plaintiff, who sues a defendant on a basis
of negligence, is not entitled to recover any damages if he or she committed an act of
negligence that contributed to the injury suffered. Contributory negligence has been
abandoned in Pennsylvania to the extent that it would completely preclude a
plaintiff’s recovery if the plaintiff is determined to have been in any way causally
negligent. See also "Comparative Negligence."
Controlled Substance - A substance identified in Pennsylvania’s Drug, Device and
Cosmetic Act, whose distribution either is controlled by government regulation or is
prohibited under the law. The term refers to legal prescription medications and to illegal
drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other prohibited substances.
Conversion - The improper use or possession of the personal property of another, or the
destruction of another’s personal property.
Corpus Delicti - Objective proof that a crime has been committed; for example, the
corpse of a murdered person or the charred remains of a burned house.
Corroborating Evidence - Evidence tending to strengthen or confirm evidence previously
Costs - Expenses in prosecuting or defending a suit, usually not including
attorney’s fees. "Record costs" always may be recovered by the prevailing
party in a lawsuit. Additionally, the prevailing party may file a "bill of
costs," which, depending upon local or statewide rule, may entitle the prevailing
party to recover certain enumerated costs from the other party.
Counterclaim - A demand made by the defendant against the plaintiff after the plaintiff
has instituted a suit against the defendant. A counterclaim neither answers nor denies the
plaintiff’s claim, but rather asserts an independent claim against the plaintiff
arising out of the same incidents or transactions that gave rise to the plaintiff’s
Court of Common Pleas - Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, the county courts. The
trial courts are of original and general jurisdiction.
Court Reporter - A person who transcribes testimony during court proceedings,
depositions or other proceedings authorized by a court or rule of court.
Courts of Record - Courts whose proceedings are permanently recorded, and which have
the power to fine or imprison individuals for contempt. Courts not of record are those of
lesser authority and usually refer to district courts or municipal courts. See also
"Pennsylvania Court System."
Criminal Information - The formal document prepared by a district attorney charging a
criminal defendant with specific crimes. A criminal defendant enters a plea to a criminal
information by signing the information, indicating his plea.
Criminal Insanity - Mental illness that absolves a defendant of criminal
responsibility. Basically stated, a defendant is not criminally culpable if, as a result
of a diagnosed mental illness, he or she is unable to appreciate the wrongness of the
Crossclaim - A claim by one defendant against another defendant. It can refer to
independent claims between defendants arising out of the same incident or transaction that
gave rise to the plaintiff’s suit against a defendant. It often refers to a claim
that another defendant is liable to the plaintiff or is responsible to indemnify another
Cross Examination - The questioning of a witness in a legal proceeding by a party that
has not called the witness as his or her witness.
Damages - Compensation that one party may recover from another party when he or she has
suffered a loss, detriment or injury to person or property, or a violation of rights
through the unlawful acts or omissions of another.
De Facto - "In fact." It describes a state of affairs or a set of
circumstances that exist in reality, though perhaps not officially. A matter of conduct
that is founded not upon law, but upon the conduct or practice of a person, organization
or government agency.
De Jure - "By right." A state of affairs established or functioning in
explicit and overt accordance with the requirements of the law.
De Minimus - Something that is so minimal or small that it does not justify relief from
De Novo - "New." Often refers to a "trial de novo" in which a
second trial is held on the same matter as if it had not been previously heard. No
preceding value is placed upon the first trial when there is a subsequent trial de novo.
Dead Man’s Rule - A complex and long-standing rule of law that states generally
that one party may not testify at a trial or hearing about transactions or occurrences
with a deceased party while the deceased party was alive. Exceptions to this general rule
Decedent - An individual who has died.
Declaratory Judgment - A judgment that states the rights of parties, or expresses the
opinion of the court on a disputed question of law, without ordering that damages be
awarded or any penalty be paid.
Decree - A decision or order of the court. A final decree is one that fully and finally
disposes of litigation. An interlocutory decree is a provisional or preliminary decree
that does not fully and finally dispose of litigation.
Deed - A formal written document or instrument used to convey title to real property
from one individual or entity to another.
Defamation - The publication of false, derogatory statements about another. Verbal
statements constitute "slander." Written statements constitute
Default - Generally, a defendant’s failure to file a pleading within the time
allowed or to appear at a hearing or trial. In contract law, it also is the failure of a
party to perform a duty imposed by a contract.
Defendant - The party against whom a civil action or a criminal information is filed.
Demurrer - A formal statement made by a defendant that the allegations stated in a
complaint, even if admitted, are not legally sufficient to constitute a cause of action.
Deposition - The testimony of a witness that is not taken in open court, but rather is
taken under oath in the presence of a court reporter.
Detainer - A written notice served by a governing authority on a governing authority
that is maintaining custody of a criminal defendant, indicating that it intends to take
custody of the defendant immediately upon his or her becoming available from the custodial
Devise - A gift of real property made in a will.
Direct Evidence - Proof of facts by the introduction of objects, documents, tangible
evidence and witnesses who have direct sensory perception of facts. Distinguishable from
circumstantial evidence, which is indirect and requires inferences to prove facts.
Direct Examination - The interrogation of a witness by the party on whose behalf the
witness is called.
Directed Verdict - An instruction by a judge to a jury that it must return a specific
Disbarment - Action taken by a court revoking an attorney’s license to practice
Discovery - The process used by parties to court cases by which one party obtains
information and facts known or possessed by the other party or by witnesses. Discovery
includes, but is not limited to, interrogatories, requests for production of documents,
depositions and requests for admissions.
Dismissal with Prejudice - The ending of a lawsuit in which the plaintiff is prohibited
from suing again on the same cause of action.
Dismissal without Prejudice - The ending of a lawsuit in which the plaintiff retains
the right to sue again on the same cause of action.
Dissent - The disagreement of one or more judges of a court with the decision of the
majority of the court. In written court opinions, it is referred to as a "dissenting
Distraint - A landlord’s retention of property of a tenant as security or
compensation for unpaid rent or charges under a lease.
Dissolution - The process by which a corporation, partnership or other legal entity is
Divorce - Refers generally to the severance of the bonds of matrimony between husband
Docket - The court’s formal record of a legal proceeding.
Domicile - The location of a person’s permanent home, which is intended to be his
or her permanent residence. Someone may have several residences, but only may have one
Double Jeopardy - A prohibition in common law and constitutional law that prohibits an
individual from being prosecuted or placed in jeopardy twice for the same crime.
Duces Tecum - "Under penalty you shall take it with you." Applied to a
subpoena or writ, a duces tecum orders the person upon whom it is served to bring
specified documents or tangible evidence to court.
Due Process - Generally speaking, the right of individuals to have notice of legal
proceedings and a fair opportunity to be heard.
Easement - The right to use the land of another for a specific purpose. The term most
frequently refers to the right of passage over another’s land, but also refers to
other rights to use another’s property.
Element - A specific item of factual proof that must be satisfied to prove a claim in a
civil case or a criminal act in a criminal case.
Embezzlement - The fraudulent misappropriation of money entrusted to another.
Emancipation - The time when a child under the age of 18 becomes legally free from
parental control, and at which point a parent’s obligation for support, care and
maintenance of a child ends. It may occur when a child under 18 years of age becomes
married or self-supporting.
Eminent Domain - The power of a government body to appropriate private property for
public use through condemnation proceedings in which the owner of the private property is
compensated by the government for the appropriation.
En Banc - Depending upon the particular court, en banc indicates a hearing or argument
before all of the judges, or a panel of judges, of the court sitting together.
Encumbrance - A charge or claim levied on property, such as a mortgage, lien or
Enjoin - To prohibit a person or entity, by injunction, from performing some act.
Entity - A legally identifiable being with specific legal rights, such as an
individual, partnership, corporation or governmental body, which may be held legally
Entrapment - The use by law enforcement of acts that induce a person to commit a crime
that the person would not otherwise have committed, except for the provocations of law
Equity - The side of the court that hears and decides cases based upon general
unwritten rules of fairness, not upon specific legal rules.
Equity Courts - Courts that award nonmonetary remedies according to a system of equity,
as opposed to courts of law that award monetary remedies.
Escheat - The right of the state to acquire the assets of an estate to which no one is
able to make a valid claim. The process rarely is invoked.
Escrow - An agreement whereby a writing, deed, money or security is placed in the
custody of a third person until the occurrence of a specified contingency, performance of
a specified condition or receipt of a specified notice authorizing release.
Escrow Agent - The individual with whom a writing, deed, money or security is placed,
pending the occurrence of a specified contingency.
Estate - All property owned by a person, both real and personal, as well as property
rights and rights in an action, and includes all of the liabilities of an individual. Most
often used to refer to the holdings of a personal representative of someone who has died,
but also may refer to the holdings of a guardian holding property for the benefit of a
minor or an incapacitated person. See also "Marital Estate."
Estoppel - A person’s legally determined inability to deny facts as the result of
previous acts, failures to act or acceptance of facts that were relied upon by another
Et al. - An abbreviation meaning "and others."
Et seq. - An abbreviation meaning "and the following."
Et ux. - An abbreviation meaning "and wife." Usually used in real estate
transactions when a grantor’s or grantee’s wife joins in a conveyance.
Evidence - Anything tending to prove or disprove a disputed fact. Evidence may be
classified as follows:
Testimony - oral statements made in court;
Tangible Evidence - Things or objects that have physical existence;
Documentary Evidence - Includes letters, memoranda, reports or other writings; and
Demonstrative Evidence - A procedure or recreation, where the cause and effect of an
event are shown or acted out. See also "Circumstantial Evidence,"
"Direct Evidence," "Rules of Evidence" and "Parol Evidence."
Ex Contractu - Rights and causes of action arising from a contract.
Ex Delicto - Rights and causes of action arising from a tort.
Ex Parte - Acts done on behalf of or on the application of one party without the
knowledge of another party or without another party being given the opportunity to
participate. Ex parte communications between a party and a court are frowned upon and
avoided whenever possible.
Ex Post Facto - "After the fact." An act or fact occurring after a previous
act or fact, and relating to it. Most often refers to an ex post facto law, which would
make a crime greater in magnitude when prosecuted, than when the crime was committed -- or
a punishment more severe than it was at the time when the act was committed. Ex post facto
laws are unconstitutional under the United States Constitution and the Pennsylvania
Exception - A formal objection to the court’s refusal of a request or overruling
of an objection. It also is used to refer to a request by a party to a court, asserting
that an appointed master has made errors in its determination of issues before it.
Exclusionary Rule - A rule prohibiting the use in criminal prosecutions of evidence
determined to have been obtained illegally, such as the suppression of a defendant’s
statements made to authorities without having been provided the appropriate Miranda
Execute - To sign a document. It also refers to a creditor’s selling of a
debtor’s property through a Sheriff or Constable to satisfy a judgment.
Execution - Often used to refer to the imposition of capital punishment; that is, the
killing of a criminal defendant for having committed first degree murder. It also refers
to an individual’s signing of a document.
Executor/trix - A person named by the decedent in a will to effectuate the testamentary
intent of the will. The executor/trix is responsible for collecting the assets of the
decedent, paying all outstanding liabilities of the decedent and ensuring that the
beneficiaries of the will receive the property to which the beneficiaries are entitled
under the will.
Exhibit - A paper, document or tangible article introduced as evidence at a hearing or
trial and exhibited to the court and jury during a trial or hearing.
Expert Testimony - Testimony usually consisting of opinion evidence given on a
scientific, technical or professional matter by persons qualified to speak authoritatively
because of special training, skill, experience or familiarity about a subject.
Extradition - The surrender of an accused or convicted criminal by a custodial
jurisdiction to another jurisdiction outside of its own territory and within the other
Fair Comment - In libel law, a statement made by a writer in the honest belief of its
truth, even though the statement is not true.
False Arrest - The unlawful deprivation of another’s liberty.
False Pretenses - Intentional misrepresentation of existing fact to obtain
Fee Simple - Absolute and perpetual ownership of real property.
Felony - A more serious crime than a misdemeanor, a felony often is punishable by
imprisonment in a penitentiary. Felonies are graded as first, second and third degree,
with first degree felonies being the most severe.
Fiduciary - A person standing in special trust, confidence or responsibility in
obligations to others. For example, the executor of an estate, the director of a
corporation or the trustee of a trust stand in a fiduciary capacity, whose obligations are
defined by law in a fiduciary code.
Foreclosure - A legal proceeding to enforce payment of a debt through the sale of
property upon which a creditor holds a lien.
Forfeit - To lose or to be forced to give up property, a right or a privilege, as a
result of misconduct or negligence.
Forgery - Intentionally falsifying or altering a writing that affects legal rights or
responsibilities, with the intent to defraud.
Forum Non Conveniens - A determination that, for practical reasons such as the absence
of material witnesses or evidence from a jurisdiction in which a case is originally filed,
a case should be transferred from the jurisdiction in which it was filed to another
jurisdiction where trial of the case would be more convenient for the parties and the
Fraud - An intentional misrepresentation designed to deprive another of property or
rights, or to inflict injury in some manner.
Full Tort - A selection currently available in Pennsylvania motor vehicle insurance
policies that gives an insured the right to make claims and file suit for injuries that
are not serious. See contra, "Limited Tort."
Garnishment - A statutory proceeding in which a creditor obtains a debtor’s
property or money, which is in the possession or control of a third party, to apply to the
debts of the debtor.
Garnishee - The person on whom a garnishment is served, such as a financial institution
holding a bank account.
General Assignment - A voluntary transfer by a debtor of all property to a trustee for
the benefit of all creditors. General assignments generally have been eliminated in favor
of formal bankruptcy proceedings.
Gagnon Hearing - Generally refers to hearings held when a criminal defendant on
probation or parole is alleged to have violated the terms and conditions of his or her
probation or parole. The hearing may result in the criminal defendant’s having such
probation or parole revoked.
Gift - The transfer of ownership from one person or entity to another for no
Grantee - The person or entity to whom property is conveyed.
Grand Jury - A jury whose duty is to receive complaints and accusations in criminal
cases and to hear the evidence and issue indictments in cases where it believes that a
trial should take place.
Grantor - The person or entity who conveys property to another.
Guardian Ad Litem - An attorney appointed by the court to represent the interests or
potential interests of a minor or an incapacitated person in a pending court proceeding.
Guardian of the Estate - A person appointed by the court to represent the interests or
potential interests of a minor or an incapacitated person concerning the financial affairs
and property interests owned by the minor or incompetent.
Guardian of the Person - A person appointed by the court to care for the personal
interests and personal welfare of a minor or an incapacitated person.
Guilty but Mentally Ill - A plea by a criminal defendant in which a criminal defendant
admits guilt, but claims that his or her criminal behavior was the result of a mental
illness. A plea or verdict of guilty but mentally ill does not absolve the defendant of
criminal responsibility, and the criminal defendant is sentenced as though he had simply
pleaded "guilty," but is afforded the opportunity to be incarcerated at a mental
institution and afforded treatment prior to being placed in a penitentiary.
Habeus Corpus - "You have the body." A variety of writs that bring a person
before a court. They generally are directed to an official who is detaining a person,
commanding that the official produce the detainee in court.
Harmless Error - Error committed by a lower court during a trial that an appellate
court determines not to have been prejudicial to the rights of a party and for which the
appellate court will not reverse judgment.
Hearing - An official legal proceeding in which a court accepts evidence and determines
whether sufficient facts have been proven to warrant the court taking official action.
Hearsay - Oral or written evidence, which is not derived from a witness’s personal
knowledge, and thus, is susceptible to being inadmissible in a judicial proceeding.
Holographic Will - A will written in a testator’s/testatrix’s own
Hostile Witness - A witness who is subject to cross-examination by the party calling
him to testify because of a previously unknown antagonism to that party.
Hung Jury - A jury that can not agree upon a verdict. In criminal cases, a hung jury
allows the prosecution to try the defendant again without violating constitutional
protections against double jeopardy.
Hypothetical Question - A combination of assumed or proven facts upon which an expert
witness is asked to state an opinion.
Impanel - To seat a complete jury. A jury is "impaneled" after vior dire has
concluded and both sides have used their peremptory challenges and challenges for cause.
The jurors then take an oath to perform their duty, and after which, a trial proceeds with
the introduction of evidence.
Impeachment - An attack on a witness’ credibility by cross-examination or by
introduction of contradicting evidence.
Implied Contract - A contract in which a promise made by the obligor is not expressed,
but rather inferred from conduct or implied in law.
Imputed Negligence - Negligence that is not committed by an individual or entity, but
because of a joint legal interest or other legal relationship, he or she is liable. It is
often used in a principal/agent situation. See also "Respondent Superior."
Inadmissible - Evidence that, under the established rules of evidence, can not be
admitted in court.
In Camera - In chambers; in private. Typically, it is a review of evidence by a judge
in chambers and not in open court.
In Personam - Referring to the jurisdiction that a court obtains over an individual or
In Re - "In the matter of." Concerning; regarding.
In Rem - Refers to a court’s jurisdiction over a particular piece of property,
real or personal.
Indemnify/Indemnification - To compensate another for a loss or damage that already has
occurred; or, to give security for future loss.
Indeterminate Sentence - A sentence of incarceration of "not less than" a
time period and "not more than" a time period. After sentencing, parole
authorities will determine the actual amount of jail time served within the minimum and
maximum limits set by the court in the original sentence.
Indictment - A written accusation presented by a grand jury that charges a person with
Information - A document prepared by a prosecutor specifically charging a criminal
defendant with having committed certain crimes. An information differs from an indictment
only in that it is presented by a prosecutor instead of a grand jury. See also
Injunction - An order issued by a court, prohibiting someone from doing something.
Innocent - Free from guilt or responsibility.
Insanity - In criminal law, it is used to refer to a mental state whereby a criminal
defendant, due to mental illness, lacks the ability to form the specific intent to commit
Intangible Personal Property - Property that is not of a physical nature, but still has
value, such as bank accounts, stocks, bonds and mortgages.
Instruction - At the close of a jury trial, the explanation given by the judge to the
jury concerning the laws pertaining to the case, and the application of the laws to the
facts of the case.
Instrument - A formal written legal document, such as a will, contract or deed.
Inter Alia - "Among other things."
Inter Alios - "Among other persons."
Inter Vivos - "From one living person to another." When property passes from
one living person to another, as opposed to by the death of a person.
Interlocutory - Provisional or temporary orders and decrees of court.
Interrogatories - Formal written questions posed to a party, who then must provide
written answers to the questions under oath.
Intervention - A procedure allowing a third person, not originally a named party to a
legal action, to voluntarily become a party to it.
Intestate - Dying without leaving a will. In this event, the decedent’s property
passes to his or her beneficiaries according to statutory law.
Irrelevant - When referring to evidence, it is evidence that does not relate or apply
to a matter at issue.
Joint and Several Liability - The liability of more than one party to a plaintiff, in
which case each defendant is responsible for completely compensating the plaintiff,
regardless of the apportionment of liability between the respective defendants.
Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship - Ownership of real property by more than one
person in which each joint tenant owns the entire property, and in which ownership of the
property remains entirely with the surviving joint tenants upon the death of another joint
Judge - An elected or appointed official whose responsibility is to conduct hearings,
trials and other legal proceedings to determine disputed issues of fact and law. Judges
may be of a trial court or an appellate court.
Judgment - Determined by agreement or judicial decision, a judgment is an entry into
the court record of a liability, which may be used by a creditor to levy on a
debtor’s property and execute on such property.
Judicial District - The designation of a geographic area over which a particular court
of common pleas has jurisdiction. In Pennsylvania, most counties are judicial districts in
and of themselves, but there are some two-county judicial districts.
Jurat - The clause at the end of an affidavit stating when and before whom the
affidavit was made.
Juris Doctor - The degree bestowed by law schools upon students who have earned
sufficient academic credit to be eligible to practice law.
Jurisdiction - The authority of a court to hear a particular case and to render a
judgment. See also "In Rem," "In Personam" and "Subject Matter
Jurisprudence - The philosophy of law, or the science that deals with the principals of
law and legal relations.
Jury - A certain number of persons who are selected according to law, and sworn to
inquire about matters of fact and declare the truth from evidence presented to it. See
also "Grand Jury" and "Petit Jury."
Jury Commissioner - An officer appointed by the court to draw the names for the panel
of jurors who shall be available to sit for a specified term of court.
King’s Bench Power - The authority of the highest appellate court to take
jurisdiction of a pending matter at any point in the proceeding due to immediate and
pressing considerations. The power is rarely invoked and only is invoked in the most
serious and urgent situations.
Landlord - The lessor of real property.
Last Clear Chance - A rebuttal to a defense of contributory negligence, which states
that although a plaintiff’s own negligence may have been self-endangering, the
defendant had the last clear chance to avoid injuring the plaintiff.
Leading Question - A question that, when posed, suggests the answer to the witness. In
most cases it can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no." Leading
questions are permitted on cross-examination, but are prohibited on a party’s direct
examination of its own witness.
Legal Remedy - A plaintiff’s seeking money damages, as opposed to seeking an
Lessor - The owner of real or personal property who, for payment of rent, allows
possession and use of such property by someone else.
Lessee - The person or entity that pays rent to the owner of property for the right to
use and possess the property.
Letters Rogatory - A request by one court to another court, in a separate and
independent jurisdiction, that a witness be examined with written questions, such as
interrogatories, which are sent with the request.
Levy - The legal process by which property is seized by a sheriff, who notifies the
possessor of such property that a creditor has a judgment against the debtor/owner of the
property and intends to sell the property to satisfy a judgment or debt.
Liable - Responsible to another.
Libel - Defamation in print, writing, pictures or signs. In its most general sense, any
written publication that is false and injurious to an individual’s reputation.
Lien - Any of a variety of charges or encumbrances on property that are imposed to
secure the payment of a debt or the performance or nonperformance of some act. Liens are
enforced by foreclosure proceedings and can be imposed on real or personal property.
Limited Tort - A limitation on financial recovery in civil actions for personal injury
resulting from automobile accidents whereby an injured party only may recover economic
damages, such as lost wages. No noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering, may be
recovered unless the individual has sustained a "serious bodily injury."
Lis Pendens - "Pending the lawsuit, nothing should be changed." A lis pendens
is a written notice filed with the court that becomes public notice of a claim against
real property. Generally, the result of a filing of a Lis Pendens is that the property
cannot be sold.
Litigant - A party to a lawsuit.
Locus Delicti - The place where a criminal offense occurred.
Malfeasance - Intentionally committing an act that is prohibited by law.
Malicious Prosecution - An action for recovery of damages that resulted to a person,
property or reputation from previous civil or criminal proceedings that were prosecuted or
pursued with malice and without probable cause.
Malpractice - The failure of a professional person, such as a doctor, lawyer or
engineer, to abide by accepted standards of practice. The result of this failure is injury
or loss to another.
Mandamus or Non-discretionary - A writ issued from a court to a public official that
commands the official to perform a ministerial act.
Mandatory Sentence - Legislatively established minimum sentences to which a criminal
defendant must, at a minimum, be sentenced following conviction of a particular crime.
With mandatory sentences, a court may not sentence a criminal defendant to a minimum
sentence less than the mandatory minimum.
Manslaughter - The unlawful killing of another without malice. Manslaughter is
classified as either voluntary or involuntary, depending upon the circumstances.
Marital Estate - The accumulated assets and liabilities of a married couple.
Marriage - The union of two individuals in the bonds of matrimony.
Master - An officer of the court, usually an attorney, who is appointed for the purpose
of taking testimony and making a report and recommended result to the court. A master is
frequently involved in domestic relations matters. A party unhappy with the decision of a
master may file exceptions to have the matter reviewed by a trial court.
Material Evidence - Evidence that is relevant to issues in dispute.
Mechanics Lien - A lien obtained by a contractor or subcontractor against real property
as a result of the contractor or subcontractor having made improvements to the real
Memorandum of Law - A document prepared by an attorney before a hearing, trial or other
legal proceeding, that outlines for the court the basic facts and legal arguments
concerning the matters at issue.
Mens Rea - "Guilty mind." A criminal defendant’s state of mind, which
must be proved to secure a conviction for a criminal offense.
Misdemeanor - A criminal offense, which is less severe than a felony, and often is
punishable by probation, fine or imprisonment other than in a penitentiary. Misdemeanors
are graded as first, second and third degree misdemeanors, with first degree misdemeanors
being the most severe.
Misfeasance - The improper performance of a lawful act.
Mistrial - A trial terminated by the court due to a prejudicial event or error
occurring during the trial, or as the result of a jury being unable to reach a verdict.
Mitigating Circumstance - A circumstance that does not constitute a justification or
excuse for an offense, but may reduce the degree of culpability or punishment. It is often
used in sentencing proceedings for criminal offenses, especially in cases of first degree
murder where a prosecutor seeks the death penalty.
Moot - An issue that no longer needs judicial consideration due to an occurrence of
events over a period of time.
Moral Turpitude - Baseness, vileness or dishonesty of a high degree. A crime of moral
turpitude has been defined as one demonstrating depravity in the private and social duties
that a person owes to others and society at large.
Motion - A written or oral request addressed to the court that requests that some
action be taken; usually requesting the court to issue an order.
Municipal Courts - Courts whose geographic authority is confined to a city or
community. See supra, "Pennsylvania Court System."
Murder - The unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought.
Murder has three degrees of culpability - first degree, second degree and third degree,
with first degree being the most severe.
Negligence - An act or the omission of an act that constitutes a lack of due care under
the prevailing circumstances. Due care generally is defined as what a reasonable person
would do under the existing circumstances.
Negotiable Instrument - A document, such as a check, note or bill that evidences an
established financial liability or promise from one person to another, which may be
transferred from one person to another for consideration.
No-Fault Divorce - A divorce based on the irretrievable breakdown of a marriage, which
involves mutual consent of the parties or a lapse of two years after legal separation when
parties have lived separate and apart for more than two years.
Nolle Prosequi - The formal entry into the court record by a plaintiff in a civil suit,
or prosecuting officer in a criminal case, in which it is declared that he or she will not
further prosecute the case. The term is commonly referred to by its abbreviated version -
Nolo Contendere - "I will not contest it." An admission by a criminal
defendant that the prosecution has enough evidence to establish the defendant’s guilt
beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not, however, an admission that the defendant committed
the criminal act. At sentencing the court will accept the prosecution’s version of
the criminal episode as true when determining the appropriate punishment.
Nominal Bail - Setting bail at one dollar.
Non Obstante Verdicto - "Notwithstanding the verdict." A judgment entered for
one party by the court despite a jury’s verdict against that party is commonly called
Notice of Appeal - A document filed with the court clerk to inform the court of a
party’s intention to appeal a decision.
Objection - A party’s taking exception to proposed evidence or to a trial
procedure, which calls the court’s attention to such evidence or procedure. An
objection requires a ruling by a court, either sustaining or overruling the objection.
Of Counsel - As opposed to the principal attorney of record, counsel assisting in the
preparation, management or presentation on appeal of a case. Also commonly used to denote
semi-retired partners in a law firm.
Opinion - The formal written decision rendered by a judge or court in a case reciting
the governing facts and legal principles of a case, and the reasons upon which the
decision is based.
Opinion Evidence - Evidence consisting of what a witness believes or infers concerning
disputed facts, as opposed to a witness’ personal knowledge of a fact. Opinion
evidence has limited admissibility, except in the case of expert witnesses.
Order - A written statement of a judge or court that compels someone to do or not do
Ordinance - A law enacted by the legislative body of a borough, township or city that
is enforceable within the borough, township or city.
Original Jurisdiction - The authority of a court to hear and decide a case in its
initial presentation. The Courts of Common Pleas exercise original jurisdiction in the
majority of cases. See supra, "Pennsylvania Court System."
Panel - The whole body of persons summoned as jurors for a term of court, or those
selected to hear a particular case.
Pardon - Action by a governor or the president of the United States that relieves a
criminal defendant from serving the sentence imposed.
Parole - Releasing a criminal defendant before the expiration of his or her maximum
Parol Evidence - Oral or verbal evidence. The spoken testimony of a witness in court.
Parol Evidence Rule - When parties have a written agreement, all previous oral
agreements and negotiations merge with the written agreement and may not be used to prove
the terms of the agreement unless there was a mutual mistake or fraud in the preparation
of the written agreement.
Party - Someone named in a legal matter who has a direct interest in the outcome of it.
Patent - A right and the document evidencing the right to the exclusive control of a
unique idea, discovery, invention or process, for a definite term of years. Patents are
regulated and issued by the United States Government.
Per Curium - "By the court." An opinion or order by the whole court, as
opposed to an opinion or order of one judge of the court.
Peremptory Challenge/Peremptory Strike - A challenge or strike used to reject a
prospective juror without stating a cause.
Personal Recognizance - Bail consisting of a criminal defendant’s signed promise
to appear in court when required.
Petition - A written request addressed to the court asking for a court order or some
other form of relief.
Petit Jury - A jury comprised of twelve or less persons for the trial of a civil or
Plaintiff - A person who institutes a civil lawsuit; the party who complains or sues.
Plea - In criminal law, a criminal defendant’s formal response to a criminal
information. The five pleas are (1) "not guilty," which is a complete denial of
guilt; (2) "not guilty by reason of insanity," which pleads the defense of
criminal insanity; (3) "no contest" (nolo contendere), which denies guilt, but
admits that the facts on which the charge is based would be sufficient evidence for a jury
to convict the defendant; (4) "guilty," which is a complete admission of guilt;
and (5) "guilty but mentally ill," in which a defendant admits guilt, but blames
his or her criminal acts on a mental illness.
Plea Bargain - An agreement between the prosecution and a defendant, whereby a
defendant agrees to enter a plea of guilty, guilty but mentally ill or nolo contendere, in
exchange for the prosecution’s agreement to withdraw certain charges or to make
concessions on sentencing. A court may reject a plea bargain if it believes that it is
Pleading - Written documents filed by parties in civil lawsuits that set forth the
basic facts and legal principles upon which the parties rely to support their respective
positions. Generally, a pleading that contains allegations of fact that requires another
party to file a "responsive pleading."
Polling the Jury - Asking each juror individually to state his or her verdict in open
court after the verdict is read.
Post-Trial Motions - A motion filed by a party that is dissatisfied with a trial
result. Post-trial motions are available in civil and criminal cases and are subject to
specific rules concerning the timely filing and disposition of the post-trial motions. An
appeal may be filed to an appellate court once the post-trial motions have been decided by
the trial court.
Power of Attorney - An instrument authorizing someone or some entity to act as
another’s agent or attorney.
Praecipe - A legal document filed by a party in a civil or criminal case that is
addressed to the clerk of the court, directing that the clerk do a particular act or issue
a particular document.
Prejudicial Error - Synonymous with "reversible error." An error that
requires an appellate court to reverse the judgment of a lower court because the error may
have had a substantial effect on the outcome of the trial in the lower court.
Preliminary Arraignment - Usually occurring immediately after arrest, a preliminary
arraignment is when a criminal defendant is informed by a district justice of the charges
that are being filed against the defendant. It also is when bail is first set by a
Preliminary Hearing - A hearing before a district justice to determine whether the
prosecution has enough evidence to establish a "prima facie" case against a
criminal defendant. It is held to determine if there is enough evidence to maintain
charges against a criminal defendant.
Preliminary Objection - A responsive pleading in a civil case in which a party alleges
that another party’s previous pleading is legally defective and asks that the court
either dismiss or strike part of or all the previous pleading.
Preponderance of the Evidence - The burden of proof in a civil case, whereby a party
must present a greater weight of credible evidence than the other party.
Presentment - A written statement to a court by a grand jury that a criminal offense
has occurred. The statement is based upon the evidence presented to the grand jury.
Presumption of Fact - The inference that a certain fact is true due to the mere
existence of another fact or set of facts.
Presumption of Law - The inference that a certain conclusion of law must be made due to
the mere existence of a fact or set of facts.
Prima Facie - "On its face." A degree of proof, whereby there is enough
evidence for a reasonable person to believe that a set of events may have occurred.
Priority of Liens - The precedence in which liens on a property are paid. The general
rule is "first in time, first in priority," although certain liens, such as
those for unpaid taxes, may have priority regardless of when they were filed.
Pro Bono Publico - For the public good or for the welfare of the whole. It usually
refers to services rendered by attorneys without charge. Commonly abbreviated "pro
Probable Cause - The existence of specific and articulable facts that would lead a
reasonable person to believe that something is true. It usually refers to whether there
are sufficient facts to arrest someone for committing a crime.
Probate - The process of proving a will. Submitting a will to a register of wills and
asking that the register accept the will as the "Last Will and Testament" of a
Probation - Allowing a person convicted of a criminal offense to remain out of jail
under the supervision of a probation officer for a specified length of time. A criminal
defendant’s probation may be revoked if he or she violates a term or condition of
probation or is convicted of a new offense during the probationary period.
Procedural Law - The rules of court governing the method by which cases are filed,
litigated and appealed. See contra, Substantive law.
Promissory Note - A written promise to pay a determined sum of money to a named person
according to specified terms.
Property Bond - Posting real estate as bail to secure a criminal defendant’s
appearance in court.
Prosecutor - Initially, a prosecutor is the instigator of a criminal prosecution --
usually the arresting police officer. It also is a lawyer who represents the commonwealth
or state in a criminal case.
Protection from Abuse Order - An order of court that prohibits someone in a family or
other close relationship to another person from verbally or physically harassing, stalking
or assaulting such other person. A violation of a protection from abuse order may result
in immediate incarceration.
Prothonotary - The public officer who acts as the principal clerk of courts in civil
Proximate Cause - Sometimes called "legal cause." It is an event or
occurrence that is a substantial factor in making another event or result occur.
Punitive Damages - Damages awarded to a plaintiff to punish a defendant for committing
acts found to be outrageous and not tolerable in a civilized society.
Quash - To vacate an appeal, an indictment, summons or subpoena.
Quasi Judicial - An act that is done, or authority that is exercised by a public body,
which is in part administrative and in part the hearing and determination of facts.
Quid Pro Quo - "For what." A fair return or consideration.
Quitclaim Deed - A deed that does not state a grantor’s interest in real property,
but rather states that the grantor transfers to a grantee whatever interest he or she
possesses. A quitclaim deed contains no warranties of title.
Quo Warranto - A lawsuit challenging the legal right of a person who holds a particular
public office to hold that office.
Quorum - A sufficient number of members of a governing body gathered at a particular
time and place to permit official action or deliberations of such governing body.
Real Estate - Property consisting of land, buildings and things attached or affixed to
land and buildings.
Reasonable Doubt - Referring to the burden of proof in a criminal case. "Beyond a
reasonable doubt" is not beyond all doubt, but is doubt that would prevent a
reasonable person from acting in his everyday affairs.
Rebuttal - Demonstrating that statements of witnesses are not true through subsequent
Receiver - An appointee of the court who manages the property or business of another,
pending legal action.
Record Costs - Fees paid to the court or agents of a court and the sheriff as part of a
Redirect Examination - Questioning of a witness by a party after the witness has been
subjected to cross-examination by opposing parties.
Referee - An officer to whom a pending case is referred in order for that person to
take testimony and report to the court. A referee exercises judicial powers as an arm of
the court for that specific purpose.
Register (Registrar) - A court officer whose duty it is to keep official records, such
as the register of wills or recorder of deeds.
Remand - To send a case back to a lower court for further action.
Removal, Order of - An order by a court directing the transfer of a case to another
Replevin - A lawsuit filed to obtain possession of personal property held by someone
Reply - A pleading by a plaintiff in response to a pleading by a defendant.
Res Ipsa Loquitor - "A thing that speaks for itself." The doctrine imposes
negligence upon a defendant without the plaintiff actually proving negligence. Its use is
limited to cases in which the cause of the plaintiff’s injury was entirely under the
control of the defendant, and the injury only could have been caused by negligence of the
Res Judicata - A rule of law that states that once a final judgment has been rendered
by a court, the matter can not be relitigated between the parties.
Rescission - The act of withdrawing, nullifying, voiding or canceling a contract.
Respondeat Superior - "A superior must answer." An employer or principal is
responsible for the acts and omissions of its employees or agents for acts or omissions
occurring within the scope of their duties as employees or agents.
Respondent - The party who answers a petition or an appeal, such as an appellee.
Responsive Pleading - A pleading filed by a party in a civil lawsuit that either
contains objections to a party’s previous pleading or admits or denies allegations of
fact contained in another party’s pleading.
Rest - A party is said to "rest" when all the evidence he or she intends to
offer has been presented and offered to the court for introduction as evidence.
Restitution - A criminal defendant’s paying money to the victim of a crime to
reimburse the victim for a financial loss occurring as a result of the defendant’s
Retain - The act of a client to employ legal counsel.
Retainer - Often refers to the initial fee paid by a client to an attorney to secure
the attorney’s services.
Reversible Error - See also "Prejudicial Error."
Robbery - The taking of property from another by force or with the threat of force.
Rule to Show Cause - An order of court stating that a further order of court will
become final unless a party files exceptions and/or a response within a defined time
Rule of Court - An order made by a court establishing the general rules of practice
before the court.
Rules of Evidence - Rules, statutes and case decisions that govern what evidence can be
admitted in hearings and trials.
Satisfaction - To pay a debt in its entirety.
Satisfaction Piece - A document signed by a creditor acknowledging and confirming that
a debt has been fully paid.
Search - A government official’s inspection of private property, either real or
personal, for the purpose of discovering weapons, contraband or evidence.
Search Warrant - A written order issued by a court that directs an officer to search a
specific location for evidence of criminal activity.
Seizure - The detention of an individual or his or her property that restricts the
individual’s or the property’s freedom of movement.
Self-Defense - The protection of one’s person or property against injury or
perceived injury attempted by another. When acting in justifiable self-defense a person
may not be punished criminally nor held responsible for civil damages.
Sentence - Following a verdict of guilty, or a plea of guilty, guilty but mentally ill,
or nolo contendere, a sentence is the judgment in a criminal action, in which a court
imposes its punishment as a fine, probation, imprisonment or a combination of them.
Sequestration of Witnesses - A court order requiring witnesses to remain outside the
courtroom until each is called to testify.
Servant - An employee or one who acts for the benefit of another.
Service of Process - Official notification authorized by a rule of court that a person
has been named as a party to a lawsuit or has been accused of some offense. Process
consists of a summons, citation or warrant to which a copy of a complaint or pleading may
Sentencing Guidelines - Guidelines promulgated by the Pennsylvania Commission on
Sentencing that provide for recommended ranges of minimum sentences to which a criminal
defendant may be sentenced.
Settlement - An agreement reached between disputing parties.
Sheriff - The elected county official whose principal duties are to aid the criminal
and civil courts, including keeping order in a courtroom, and to protect the participants
in civil and criminal cases. The sheriff also serves process, executes judgments and holds
Sine Qua Non - An indispensable requisite.
Slander - Defamatory speech about another’s reputation, business or means of
Sovereign Immunity - The doctrine that a government or governmental agency can not be
sued without the consent of the Legislature.
Specific Intent - The formulation of intent necessary to make an act criminal. It
refers to a criminal defendant’s designed purpose that his or her act created the
Specific Performance - In equity, a court order compelling a party to do a specific
act. Where damages would be inadequate compensation for a breach of contract, a contractor
may be compelled to perform the act that has been agreed upon.
Stare Decisis - The doctrine that once a court has decided a principle of law as
applicable to a certain set of facts, it will adhere to that principle and apply it to
future cases where the facts are substantially the same.
States’ Evidence - Testimony given by an accomplice or co-conspirator in a crime
that is intended to incriminate others participating in a joint criminal activity. This
testimony is given under an actual or implied promise of immunity.
Statute - An act of the Legislature, which constitutes a law.
Statute of Limitations - The time limit within which an action must be brought after
its cause arises. Statutes vary in length depending on the type of case. The unexcused
failure to commence an action within that time bars it forever. Statutes of limitations
apply to civil and criminal cases.
Stay - A court order that temporarily suspends a case or the implementation of a court
Stipulation - An agreement by opposing attorneys with respect to any matter involved in
Stipulation Against Liens - A document filed with a prothonotary whereby a contractor
waives for him or herself and any of his or her subcontractors the right to file a
Subject Matter Jurisdiction - The authority of a court to hear cases involving
particular issues. See also "Federal Court System" and "Pennsylvania
Subpoena - A court-authorized document compelling witnesses to appear to give testimony
or to produce certain documents, or both.
Subpoena Duces Tecum - A subpoena compelling a witness to produce certain documents
when responding to a subpoena.
Substantive Law - Law dealing with rights, duties and liabilities between individuals
or entities, as opposed to procedural law.
Summons - A writ directing a sheriff or other officer to notify a named person that an
action has been instituted against him in court. A summons may require a person to appear
on a specific date to answer a complaint.
Supersedeas - "Stay of proceedings." A writ or court order suspending legal
proceedings or the pursuit of any further action in regards to a pending matter. See
Support Guidelines - A series of computations and formulae adopted by the Pennsylvania
Supreme Court that presumptively determines the amount of child and spousal support owed
by one party to another.
Suppression Hearing - A hearing concerning a criminal defendant’s motion to
prohibit the use of certain evidence that is alleged to have been obtained in violation of
the defendant’s rights. The hearing is held prior to trial and the prosecution has
the burden of producing evidence and establishing, by a preponderance of the evidence,
that the defendant’s rights were not violated in the process of obtaining the
Supra - "Above." As used in legal documents, it refers the reader to a
preceding part of the document.
Surety - A third person who agrees to be responsible to a creditor for a debtor’s
debts or obligations. Under a surety relationship, the third person agrees to pay the debt
of the debtor if the debtor defaults to the creditor.
Sworn - Having been administered an oath to tell the truth.
Tangible Personal Property - Items of property that, generally speaking, are movable
and not affixed or connected to land or buildings.
Temporary Restraining Order - An order issued by a court in urgent situations that
precludes someone from doing something that he or she is doing or intends to do.
Tenancy - The possessing of lands, buildings or personal property by right or title.
Tenant - A possessor of real estate under a lease or other agreement with someone who
has a superior claim of title to the real estate.
Tenants by the Entiretres - Joint ownership of real estate by husband and wife.
Tenants in Common - Multiple owners of real or personal property, whereby each owner
owns a specific percent of the property.
Term of Court - The designated period of time when a court sits to hear cases.
Testamentary - Of or pertaining to a will.
Testate - Description of an estate where a decedent has left a valid will.
Testator/Trix - The person who makes a will.
Testimony - Oral evidence given by a witness under oath.
Theft - The unlawful taking of personal property belonging to another.
Tipstaff - A judge’s personal aide whose primary functions are to assist jurors
during trials and to maintain order in the courtroom.
Title - Evidence of a person’s right to hold or possess certain property, real or
Title Search - An investigation of public records to ascertain ownership of property
and to discover any liens, encumbrances or defects that would or could affect ownership.
Tort - An injury or wrong committed against the person or property of another.
Tort Election - In Pennsylvania, an individual’s choice of motor vehicle
insurance, whereby an insured may elect to pay a lower premium for insurance in exchange
for giving up the right to sue or make a claim for pain, suffering and other noneconomic
damages resulting from an injury determined not to be a "serious bodily injury."
Transcript - The official record of a trial, hearing, deposition or other legal
Trespass - An offense against another’s person or property, whereby an individual,
without justification, physically imposes upon the person or property of another.
Trial Court - A court that conducts hearings and trials by accepting testimony and
other evidence to reach a verdict or decision. See contra, "Appellate Court."
Trial De Novo - A new trial or retrial in which a case is heard as if no trial had
previously taken place. In a trial de novo, no weight is placed on the findings or outcome
in the previous case.
Trust - An arrangement in which the owner of real or personal property transfers
ownership of such property to a trustee who holds and manages the property for the benefit
of a third party, called a "beneficiary." It also may refer to a document
creating a trust.
Undue Influence - The abuse of a confidential relationship by one party who exercises
overbearing control over another person when convincing that person to do an act or to
enter into a transaction. It usually is to the financial benefit of the individual
exercising the control.
Unlawful Detainer - Forcibly restricting an individual’s freedom of movement
without probable cause or without the legal authority to do so.
Unsecured Bail - Releasing a criminal defendant on bail pending disposition of a
criminal charge based on his or her promise that he or she will appear at future
proceedings. If the person does not appear, he or she agrees to owe a specified amount of
money as forfeited bail.
Usury - The act or practice of lending money at an exorbitant or illegal rate of
Venire - The body of jurors summoned to sit for a term of court.
Veniremen - Members of a panel of jurors.
Venue - The particular county, city or geographical area in which a court has
jurisdiction to hear and decide cases.
Verdict - The formal decision or finding of a jury or of a judge sitting without a
jury. A verdict is not a judgment in that a verdict is not a judicial determination. A
verdict is a finding of fact that the court may accept or reject, but only may reject for
very specific reasons. A judgment may be entered based upon a verdict.
Verdict Slip - A written question or series of questions submitted by the court to a
jury that the jury must answer to help form the basis for the jury’s verdict.
Vior Dire - "To speak the truth." The preliminary examination by counsel or
the court of potential jurors in order to determine whether any prospective juror should
be stricken for cause. It also aids counsel in its exercise of peremptory challenges. Vior
dire also refers to the preliminary examination of a witness in order to determine a
witness’ qualifications or competency to testify.
Waiver - The expressed or implied surrender of a known right.
Warrant of Arrest - A writ issued by a district justice, judge or other competent
authority that requires an individual’s arrest and presentation to the district
justice or court to answer to a specified criminal charge.
Weight of Evidence - The balance of evidence. The relative amount of credible evidence
presented by one side as compared to the evidence presented by the other side. A party
losing at trial may request a court to set aside a verdict on the basis that the verdict
was against the weight of the evidence.
Will - The instrument that expresses an individual’s intended disposition of his
or her property upon his or her death.
Willful - An act that is intentional or voluntary, as opposed to accidental.
With Prejudice - A disposition or decision "with prejudice" precludes raising
that issue at any time in the future.
Without Prejudice - A disposition "without prejudice" allows the issues
resulting in such disposition to be raised again in the future.
Witness - A broad term referring to any individual who may be called upon to provide
relevant testimony at a hearing or trial. Fact witnesses are individuals who had sensory
perception of something relevant to issues in a case. Expert witnesses are individuals
with specialized knowledge, training and experience who can state opinions based upon
facts introduced into evidence.
Writ - An order issued from a court requiring the performance of a specific act or the
giving of authority in commission to that act.
Writ of Error Coram Nobis - A common law writ that is used to correct a judgment in the
same court in which it was rendered on the grounds of error of fact.