Pennsylvania Research : Primary Sources: Judicial Materials

Judicial Materials

Pennsylvania case reporters can generally be divided into two categories: appellate reports and side reports. The appellate reports are those decisions from the Commonwealth, Superior, and Supreme courts published in either official case reporters, in the West regional Atlantic Reporter, or on the Internet. The concept of side reports is probably foreign to most attorneys from other states. The "side reports" consist of the various county reporters publishing trial decisions from the Courts of Common Pleas, the District and County Reports, some sets of administrative agency reports, a few topical reports like the Fiduciary Reports, and a number of miscellaneous old reporters. Side reports traditionally are those volumes of reports not included in an official compilation. In Pennsylvania it is a term used to describe this hodgepodge of reporters.

Appellate Reports

The Pennsylvania Reports are the official case reporters for Pennsylvania Supreme Court decisions. The first 52 volumes of this set are nominative reports, meaning that they are cited by the name of the person who compiled the reports. During the early 19th century, case reporting was not administered by the state and was entirely a private enterprise. When the state decided to oversee this effort they had to go back and decide which of the nominative reports they would allow to become part of the official reports. The nominatives included in the Pennsylvania Reports are: Dallas, Addison, Yeates, Binney, Sergeant and Rawle, Rawle, Penrose and Watts, Watts, Wharton, and Watts and Sergeant. Those that were not chosen were relegated to the side reports. They include: Grant, Walker, Pennypacker, Sadler, and Monaghan. There are a few cases reported in these unselected nominatives that don't appear anywhere else, so it's not uncommon to see them cited.
There have been several publishers of the Pennsylvania Reports over the years and West is currently under contract with the state to publish them. One anomaly in the set is the appearance of both a volume 81 and a volume 81*, which are different entities. There are no official advance sheets for this set or the other official reports but the Administrative Office of PA Courts website loads opinions from all three appellate courts within days of their release. These opinions also appear in the Atlantic Reporter advance sheets generally two to three months after the date of the decision.
The Pennsylvania Superior Court is an intermediate appellate court and hears both criminal and civil appeals. The official reporter is called the Pennsylvania Superior Court Reports and was first published in 1895. It ceased publication with volume 456 in 1997 leaving the Atlantic Reporter as the only reasonably comprehensive print source for these decisions. The Superior Court has its own webpage which publishes opinions almost instantaneously as they are released. The site goes back to January 1998 and one can search for decisions by keyword or scan chronological lists.
In 1970 the state established the Commonwealth Court, another intermediate court of appeals, to hear appeals in which the state itself is a party. Workmen's compensation and unemployment compensation appeals are heard by this court. Its reporter is called the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Reports. In 1995 the judges of the Commonwealth Court decided to discontinue publication of this official reporter and therefore the last volume in the set is volume 168. Commonwealth Court decisions are also available from January 1997 at the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts website mentioned above.

Side Reports

Many, but not all of the counties in Pennsylvania publish case reporters. These generally include decisions from that county's Court of Common Pleas. These reporters usually are very selective as to which of these trial level decisions they will publish. In some of these reports a single volume will publish cases from a three or four year period. In many of the smaller counties a legal secretary, the printer, or some other person with little publishing experience will collect and edit the material. Consequently many of these reporters are not what one would consider professional products.
Problems frequently encountered are the repetition of page numbers in a single volume, variations between the pagination of advance sheets and the same material in bound volumes, and most frequently changes in volume numbers between advance sheets and bound volumes. Thus, a case might appear in volume 12 when it is in advance sheet form and in volume 8 when the bound volume appears. It is not hard to understand why Shepards, a system built upon the concept of accurate citation, dropped coverage of the side reports in the early 1970's. West also decided to stop indexing these cases in the West Pennsylvania Digest 2d in 1976, although they still cover the District and County Reports and the Fiduciary Reporter. The District and County Reports is a compilation of what the editors feel to be the most significant decisions from the trial level courts. There are decisions reported in this set that are not published in the individual county reporters. Most of the county reporters do publish weekly advance sheets that are a combination of bar news, dockets, and court decisions. Recently, several of the Courts of Common Pleas have been loading their opinions on websites. Sometimes they are a part of a larger county website or possibly part of a local bar association site. I expect this trend to continue to grow.

Case Digests

For many years the only comprehensive case finding tool available in Pennsylvania was the Vale Pennsylvania Digest published by West. Using the topic and key number indexing system this tool indexed all of the appellate and side reports published in the state. By the early 1980's many of the volumes had been reissued because their pocket parts had grown so large and other volumes were bursting at the seams. West then decided to publish a new digest to contain all of the information that was at the time included in the Vale pocket parts. The new digest is called West's Pennsylvania Digest 2d. It covers all Pennsylvania appellate decisions from 1938 to date and side reports from 1938 to approximately 1976. As mentioned above it still covers District and County Reports and the Fiduciary Reporter. The set continues to use the topic and key number system and contains a descriptive word index to help lead the researcher to the appropriate topic. Other features include words and phrases volumes to locate judicially defined terms, and an alphabetical table of cases. The set is updated by annual pocket parts and a mid-year supplement is issued in September.
In an attempt to fill the gap when West stopped indexing the side reports in its digest in 1976, Packard Press decided to start a new indexing service specifically for the side reports in 1980. This was a short lived enterprise and the result was a one volume index covering some of those county cases published in 1979 and most of those decided in 1980.
After Packard Press gave up on this separate venture they incorporated it into their weekly legal newspaper the Pennsylvania Law Weekly. American Lawyer Media currently owns the paper and has continued this feature. Every issue contains a section that summarizes recent trial and appellate decisions. In January and July one issue of the newspaper contains a six month index to the summarized decisions. It is an extremely time consuming process to find Court of Common Pleas decisions this way because the index uses fairly general indexing terms and one must go to the individual issues of the Pennsylvania Law Weekly which summarized the case to get the reporter citation. Once you find a decision of interest the newspaper also has a service that allows them to copy and send it to you for a fee.
It might seem like a lot of work to search for Common Pleas decisions and in cases where an on-point appellate decision exists most attorneys will not bother. However, there are several areas of the law, landlord tenant being one, where the amount in controversy is minimal and therefore an appeal is not economical. In these areas trial decisions play an important role. In Pennsylvania, decisions from one county are not binding on the trial courts of another, but can be persuasive.


Legal briefs filed with appeals to any of the three Pennsylvania appellate courts are distributed periodically through the year to some of the larger academic and county law libraries in the state. Many libraries receiving these briefs or paperbooks, as they are commonly called, will only keep them for a few years or perhaps only collect those from a particular court due to the tremendous amount of space they can quickly occupy. They are available on microfilm and several Pennsylvania libraries collect them in this format. Westlaw has selected briefs from the mid-1990's to date. Generally, briefs are organized by court, then by judicial district, and finally by docket number. In some instances a full trial transcript is made available with the briefs.