Chapter 5: Judicial Branch: Courts & Case Law

  1. What is the Judicial Branch?
    1. How is the Judicial Branch organized at the federal level? 
    2. How is the Judicial Branch organized in Pennsylvania?
  2. Case Law
    1. What is case law?
    2. How is case law created?
    3. How does case law interact with other types of law?
    4. How can case law be useful in research?
    5. Finding case law, generally
    6. Finding Federal case law
    7. Finding Pennsylvania case law
    8. Finding Philadelphia case law
    9. How to read a case citation:
  3. Court Dockets
    1. What are dockets?
    2. How is a docket created?
    3. How can dockets be useful in research?
    4. Finding Federal dockets
    5. Finding Pennsylvania dockets
    6. Finding Philadelphia dockets
  4. Court Rules
    1. What are court rules?
    2. How are court rules created?
    3. How do court rules interact with other types of law?
    4. How can court rules be useful in research?
    5. Finding federal court rules
    6. Finding Pennsylvania court rules
    7. Finding Philadelphia court rules

This chapter will explain what the judicial branch of government does at the federal, state (PA), and local (Philadelphia) levels. It will provide an overview of the court system and describe what case law, dockets, and court rules are. It will also include links to court websites as well as free, online access to case law.

What is the Judicial Branch?

  • The judicial branch is the United States court system. The U.S. court system consists of the U.S. Supreme Court, lower federal courts, and state courts. Courts are presided over by judges.
  • The federal judiciary “decides the constitutionality of federal laws and resolves other disputes about federal laws.”
  • In criminal cases, courts decide if a person committed a crime and if/what the punishment should be. In civil cases, courts decide private disputes between people, businesses, etc. 
  • It interprets the meaning of laws and applies laws to specific cases.
  • It creates case law.

How is the Judicial Branch organized at the federal level? 

Image from Understanding the Federal Courts (AOPC)

  • The U.S. Supreme Court is the highest court in the country. Nine Justices (judges) sit on the Supreme Court. It is asked to review thousands of cases each year, but only hears about 100 – 150 appeals annually.
  • The U.S. Courts of Appeals sit below the Supreme Court. These courts are organized into 13 circuits (sometimes called “Circuit Courts”) based on 12 geographic regions and an additional Federal Circuit in Washington, D.C. These courts review the procedures and decisions of the lower U.S. District courts “to make sure that the proceedings were fair and that the proper law was applied correctly.” They also hear appeals of federal administrative agency decisions. Typically, appeals are heard by a panel of three judges. They do not have juries, and they do not retry cases, hear new evidence, or hear from witnesses.
  • The U.S. District Courts make up the lower level of the federal court system. These are trial courts where a judge presides over the case, and a jury decides the outcome. The parties may waive their right to a jury trial and elect to have the judge decide the outcome. Each of the 94 district courts are organized into 12 regional circuits within the U.S. Courts of Appeals.
    • Pennsylvania is divided into Eastern, Western, and Middle Districts (which are a part of the Third Circuit) 

For more information, see Court Role & Structure or Court Website Links from 

How is the Judicial Branch organized in Pennsylvania?

  • The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. It has seven Justices (judges) who serve 10-year terms. It mainly hears appeals from the Commonwealth and Superior Courts. It also hears appeals of death penalty cases. 
  • Pennsylvania Superior Court is one of the two appellate courts in the state that reviews the decisions of the lower trial court to see if any errors were made. Superior Court is the appeals court for most citizens and businesses, hearing appeals from criminal, civil, and family cases. It is a very busy court – it issues about 5,000 decisions each year. There are 15 judges who usually hear cases in groups of three.  
  • Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court is one of the two appellate courts in the state that reviews the decisions of the lower trial court to see if any errors were made. It is a unique court that specializes in issues related to state and local government and administrative law/agencies. There are nine judges who usually hear cases in groups of three. In addition to hearing appeals, the Commonwealth Court sometimes acts like a trial court in specific situations. 
  • The Pennsylvania Courts of Common Pleas are the trial courts that hear major civil and criminal cases as well as family court and orphan’s court matters. The Courts of Common Pleas are organized into 60 judicial districts across the state, and each district has a different number of judges (anywhere from one to more than ninety per district). The Court of Common Pleas can also hear appeals from the Magisterial or Municipal Courts or from certain government agencies.
  • Pennsylvania Courts of Limited Jurisdiction include Magisterial District and Municipal Courts across the state. These are the lowest level of courts in PA, sometimes called minor courts. These courts handle things like small claims (up to $12,000), landlord-tenant issues, traffic violations, summary offenses (such as underage drinking), and the initial stages of all criminal cases. 
  • Philadelphia makes up the First Judicial District (FJD) of Pennsylvania.
    • The FJD includes two courts: the Court of Common Pleas and Municipal Court. The Philadelphia Municipal Court is unique because its judges also hold bench trials in criminal cases when the maximum penalty is less than five years of incarceration.

For more information, see Our Pa. Court System from 

Case Law

What is case law?

  • Case law is law that is created by the decisions of a court. Generally, case law refers to opinions (statements that explain the court’s decision) written by judges, based on the specific facts of a civil or criminal case. Case law interprets and applies statutes and regulations.
  • Case law (sometimes called “common law”) is law created by courts. 

How is case law created?

  • Case law is created when a judge issues an opinion. The opinion is a court’s written statement explaining the court’s decision for the case. 
  • In some situations, it can also create precedent, which judges rely on for future rulings.

How does case law interact with other types of law?

  • Statutes: Case law complements and fills in gaps in statutory law. 
  • Statutes and Regulations: Case law helps determine the effect of statutes and regulations. When making a decision, a judge may interpret and determine the meaning of language used in a statute or regulation. When the meaning of a statute or regulation is determined, judges can then apply the relevant statute or regulation to the facts of a case to determine the outcome.

How can case law be useful in research?

  • Case law is useful in supporting a legal argument. It is typical to include citations to case law when writing briefs, for example. 
  • It is also useful in determining what the current precedent is.
  • See How to Read a Legal Opinion for a more detailed explanation on case law. 

Finding case law, generally

  • Some court opinions are gathered together and organized by date in books called “reporters.” Published opinions will have a reporter citation. Historically, cases could only be viewed in the printed reporters. 
  • Today case law is also available electronically through subscription databases like Lexis or Westlaw. See Local Public Law Libraries: Major Database Access in the Appendix of this guide for a list of law libraries in the Philadelphia area where you might be able to use these legal databases. 
  • Some case law is also available through free online resources. Here are a few options:

Finding Federal case law

Finding Pennsylvania case law

Finding Philadelphia case law

How to read a case citation:

  • Cases are published in reporters (which are books that gather together and publish cases). A case citation usually has the following parts:
    • The names of the parties
    • Volume number of reporter
    • The abbreviated title of the reporter (Federal Reporter abbreviations
    • The page where the case starts
    • Sometimes the citation will also list the court and date
  • Example of a Federal Case Citation:
    • Name of Parties, [Volume #] Reporter [Page #] (Court and Year)
    • Example: Molnlycke Health Care AB v. Dumex Med. Surgical Prods. Ltd., 64 F. Supp. 2d 448 (E.D. Pa. 1999)
  • Example of a Pennsylvania State Citation:
    • Name of Parties, [Volume #] Reporter [Page #] (Court and Year)
    • Example: Wells v. Cendant Mobility Fin. Corp., 913 A.2d 929 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006)
Federal Pennsylvania
Full Case CitationName of Parties, [Volume #] Reporter [Page #] (Court and Year)Molnlycke Health Care AB v. Dumex Med. Surgical Prods. Ltd., 64 F. Supp. 2d 448 (E.D. Pa. 1999)Name of Parties, [Volume #] Reporter [Page #] (Court and Year) Wells v. Cendant Mobility Fin. Corp., 913 A.2d 929 (Pa. Super. Ct. 2006)

Court Dockets

What are dockets?

  • Dockets contain a list of all filings and proceedings available in a case. 

How is a docket created?

  • Dockets are usually created when a complaint or petition is filed with a court.
  • Judges’ opinions (case law) are listed in the docket with the other filings that led to the judge issuing the opinion.

How can dockets be useful in research?

  • Dockets allows a user to locate basic information about the case, like the full list of parties involved (the case title does not always list all the parties), when the case was filed, the judge assigned, and the attorneys who entered an appearance. 
  • Dockets also provide a listing of all the filings submitted for a case (for example, motions, briefs, hearings, opinions, orders, etc.).

Finding Federal dockets

  • PACER – Official federal dockets from U.S. District Courts (including Pennsylvania’s Eastern, Western, and Middle District Courts), U.S. Court of Appeals (including the Third Circuit), Bankruptcy Courts, U.S. Court of Federal Claims, U.S. Court of International Trade and Judicial Panel On Multidistrict Litigation are available through PACER.
    • An account is required to search PACER. There are fees that apply for searching and viewing dockets and documents. See PACER Billing.
    • Selected federal docket information may be freely available from the non-government organization RECAP Archive, which collects and publishes some federal docket material directly from PACER. 
  • Supreme Court of the United States – Docket Search
    • “The Supreme Court’s docket system contains information about cases, both pending and decided, that have been filed at the Court. The docket provided here contains complete information regarding the status of cases filed since the beginning of the 2001 Term.”

Finding Pennsylvania dockets

  • The Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania Case Search
    • Access to Supreme, Superior, and Commonwealth (Appellate) dockets.
    • Includes criminal dockets for all PA counties. 
    • Also includes Philadelphia Municipal Court criminal dockets.
  • In Pennsylvania, electronic state civil docket access varies by county. 

Finding Philadelphia dockets

Court Rules

What are court rules?

  • Court rules govern procedures for cases and for how to do business in the courts. Rules can detail time limitations, pleadings allowed, and grounds for appeal. Sometimes they include templates for forms.
  • In federal court
    • There are multiple sets of rules that could be applicable to the case, including, but not limited to:
      • Rules of Appellate Procedure – govern procedure in the U.S. Courts of Appeals
      • Rules of Civil Procedure – govern civil proceedings in the U.S. District Courts
      • Rules of Criminal Procedure – govern criminal proceedings and prosecutions in the U.S. district courts, the courts of appeals, and the Supreme Court
      • Rules of Evidence – govern the admission or exclusion of evidence in most proceedings in the United States courts
      • Rules of Bankruptcy Procedure 
    • “Local Rules” – Each federal appellate and district court may also have their own local rules that may either supplement or replace the above Federal Rules. Check the relevant courts’ websites.
  • Each state has their own sets of court rules that govern their courts. Pennsylvania has its own Rules of Civil Procedure, Criminal Procedure, and more.
    • “Local Rules” – Each county in a state may also have their own local court rules that are used in addition to the state rules. Check with your local county.

How are court rules created?

  • Several committees are responsible for creating and updating Federal Court rules. The Judicial Conference of the United States oversees a Standing Committee and five Advisory Committees. These committees respond to proposals, draft amendments, collect public comments, and submit any agreed upon changes to the Supreme Court for approval.
  • Similar to the Federal Rules, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court appoints individuals to  several different Rules Committees. Members of the committee are responsible for informing legal professionals of any recent or proposed changes.
    • Most rule change proposals are published in the Pennsylvania Bulletin for public comment, giving the rules committees the opportunity to make changes before submitting the proposal to the PA Supreme Court. Final rules that are adopted by the PA Supreme Court are also published in the PA Bulletin.

How do court rules interact with other types of law?

  • Statutes: The process of creating, amending and enforcing federal court rules is governed by a statue in the United States code (28 U.S.C. § 2071-2077). This section grants the Supreme Court the power to promote and enforce the rules.
  • Cases: Case law is the result of a judge’s decision on a matter before the court. Court Rules are essential in ensuring that a judge’s decision was fair and timely to both parties.

How can court rules be useful in research?

  • Court rules are essential in ensuring the courts run in an efficient manner. 
  • It is important to understand court rules for the relevant jurisdiction because parties and their lawyers are required to follow them in a case or when interacting with the courts.
  • Sometimes they include templates for forms.

Finding federal court rules

Finding Pennsylvania court rules

Finding Philadelphia court rules

To be used in conjunction with PA state rules.

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