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The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania was established on May 22, 1722, in Philadelphia, Bucks and Chester counties, 67 years before the United States Supreme Court came into existence. It is the oldest appellate court in the nation. Its status became official as part of the Judiciary Act of 1722, separating it from the control of the royal governor. The act made significant progress in establishing the commonwealth’s Unified Judicial System.

The document that created the court is titled “An Act for Establishing Courts of Judicature in This Province” and is housed at the Pennsylvania State Archives in Record Group 26.

In 1722 Sir William Keith, colonial governor of Pennsylvania, met with the General Assembly and agreed, as written in the act, “That there shall be holden and kept at Philadelphia a court of record twice in every year . . . which said court shall be called and styled the supreme court of Pennsylvania.”

The court would consist of “three persons of known integrity and ability, commissioned by the governor . . . to be judges of the said court, one of whom shall be distinguished in his commission by the name of chief-justice.”

The judges were given “full power and authority . . . to issue forth writs of habeas corpus, certiorari and writs of error, and all remedial and other writs and process, returnable to the said court, and grantable by the said judges by virtue of their office.”

The judges were required “to go the circuit twice in every year, into the respective counties of Chester and Bucks to try such issues . . . as shall be depending in the said supreme court.”

The judges would have full power to hold court “and therein to hear and determine all causes, matters and things, cognizable in the said court, and also to hear and determine all and all manner of pleas, plaints and causes . . . to examine and correct all and all manner of errors of the justices and magistrates of this province . . . and thereupon to reverse or affirm the said judgments, as the law doth or shall direct. And also, to examine, correct and punish the contempts, omissions and neglects, favors, corruptions and defaults, of all or any of the justices of the peace, sheriffs, coroners, clerks and other officers within the said respective counties.”

Some of the provisions in the act have been altered through the years. Today the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania has a chief justice and six associate justices. The current justices serve 10-year terms, with the possibility of retention through a statewide yes or no vote. The court meets in three cities: Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

According to pacourts.us, the Supreme Court has “full administrative authority over all aspects of Pennsylvania’s judicial system” and hears “cases involving issues of immediate public importance arising in any court in the Commonwealth.” It has a discretionary docket, allowing it to choose the cases it will hear, except for mandatory death penalty appeals and certain Commonwealth Court appeals. This gives the Supreme Court substantial power over shaping and interpreting Pennsylvania law. As the state’s highest court, its justices make the final decisions interpreting the commonwealth’s laws and constitution.

For more information on the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania and its 300th anniversary, visit pacourts.us.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the award-winning book Soldiers to Governors and numerous articles on military, political and sports history.