The history of the Lancaster County Court began when William Penn drafted his "Frames of Government" and the English system of government was adopted in Pennsylvania. Judges with proficiency in administering justice in cases of serious felonies heard appeals in regional courts, while justices of the peace, designated from local citizenry presided over lesser offenses and administrative duties.
After the establishment of Lancaster County in May, 1729, the new Lancaster County court held its first session in August 1729 at a local tavern. In 1737, the county's first courthouse was constructed in the square at Lancaster. It is in this courthouse that the Continental Congress met on September 27, 1777 and the Pennsylvania General Assembly met during the British occupation of Philadelphia. In 1786, the original courthouse was destroyed by a fire and a new one was constructed in the square and used until 1853.
The provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution of 1790 required for the first time that local courts have a Presiding Judge "learned in the law". William Augustus Atlee was designated as the first President Judge of the Lancaster County court under the 1790 constitution. He held court in a structure in Penn Square, Lancaster, with the first session extending over four days beginning October 31, 1791. The two trials held during that term involved theft, one of a cow and one of a horse. The horse theft case had been held over for re-trial by order of the pre-constitutional court, and the alleged cow thief was cleared on the condition that he pay court costs.
In 1838 the new constitution allowed for ten year judicial appointments by the governor with senate approval. Later an 1850 amendment removed all sitting judges, and replaced them with judges designated by popular election. In 1874, that term was set at ten years and a 1968 amendment to the constitution allowed judges to be selected by popular election for their initial ten year term and thereafter stand for either election or retention.
In 1968, a constitutional amendment created a unified judicial system extending from the Magisterial District Court through the Supreme Court.
Lancaster County Court System and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania
Within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania there are four levels of Judiciary: Supreme Court, Superior Court/Commonwealth Court, Court of Common Pleas, and Minor Judiciary. In Lancaster County two of these levels comprise the court system, Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas, Second Judicial District, and the Lancaster County Minor Judiciary or Magisterial District Courts.
The Courts of the Minor Judiciary are the Courts of initial jurisdiction. It is at this level where many court proceedings are instituted. A case may be referred or appealed from the Magisterial District Court to the Court of Common Pleas. Any appeals from the Court of Common Pleas are filed with the Superior Court or the Commonwealth Court, and in a few restricted instances, a case may be appealed directly to the state Supreme Court, which is the highest Court in Pennsylvania.
Because of their positions within Pennsylvania's unified judiciary, the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas and the Lancaster County Magisterial District Courts maintain wide-ranging contact with Lancaster County's citizens and thus facilitate the accessibility of judicial services.
50 North Duke Street
P. O. Box 83480
Lancaster, PA, 17608