Philadelphia’s Commerce Court Enters its 20th Year

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Commerce Case Management Program (the Commerce Court) began its 20th year of operations on January 1, 2019.

In 1999, the Commerce Court was created by administrative order of then Administrative Judge John W. Herron (Administrative Docket 01 of 1999), with a start date of January 1, 2000. Judge Herron, along with the late Judge Albert W. Sheppard, Jr., served as the first Commerce Court Judges, with Judge Sheppard serving until his death in 2011.  Judges later sitting on the Commerce Court bench include Howland W. Abramson, Mark I. Bernstein, Gene D. Cohen, Pamela Pryor Dembe, Vincent J. DiNubile, Jr., Ramy I. Djerassi (currently sitting on the Commerce Court), Gary S. Glazer (current Commerce Court Supervising Judge), C. Darnell Jones, II (now on the Federal Bench), Patricia A. McInerney, Arnold L. New (current Court of Common Pleas Supervising Judge), and the late Albert John Snite, Jr.  Judge Nina Wright Padilla joined the Commerce Court bench in 2018.

This 2009 article by Lee Applebaum, The Commerce Court’s First Decade,  sets out an overview of the Commerce Court’s history, as does the Philadelphia section of this 2004 article (page 176). A 2005 Commerce Court study by the Committee of Seventy gives a sense of the Commerce Court in its early years, along with some detailed analysis and surveys.  As observed in an earlier post on this Blog, Philadelphia’s Court of Common Pleas has issued annual reports that cover years of Commerce Court activities and statistics.

While there have been some innovations and changes over the last 19 years, the Commerce Court’s core design and characteristics have remained constant:

A set of judges designated to handle Commerce Court cases (currently 3);

The same judge assigned to all aspects of a case from beginning to end;

A dedicated group of Commerce Court law clerks/case managers, and a Commerce Court administrator;

Experienced lawyers serving as court-annexed neutral valuators and mediators, known as Judges Pro Tempore (128 listed as of January 2019);

Written judicial opinions (over 1,300 at this time); and

Clear jurisdictional parameters defined by a list of specific case types in the Commerce Court’s enabling order and subsequent administrative orders.

The Commerce Court has at times stepped up to handle certain types of cases outside its defined jurisdiction, often for a period of years. These have included non-commercial class actions, certain non-jury property disputes (the so-called “NN” cases), and sequestration petitions over City and School District tax liens (since 2013). While capably overseeing and hearing these matters, the Commerce Court’s core jurisdiction has remained constant — managing and adjudicating a wide range of business and commercial disputes. The case types defining the Commerce Court’s jurisdiction set out in the 1999 enabling order, and the jurisdictional case types defined in the most recent Commerce Court administrative order, Administrative Docket No. 1 of 2016, are the same.

Thousands of Commerce Court cases have been filed and resolved in the last 19 years.  The First Judicial District’s most recent Annual Report (2017) charts out cases falling within the Commerce Court’s traditionally defined jurisdiction from 2014 through 2017. (See page 29) The number of traditional Commerce Court cases filed annually was 487 (2014), 516 (2015), 491 (2016), and 441 (2017). The number of the traditional Commerce Court cases resolved in each year was 671 (2014), 650 (2015), 717 (2016), and 639 (2017).  And again, this is in addition to the thousands of sequestration petitions on the Commerce Court’s docket in that same 2014-2017 period.

The Commerce Court has become a fixture in Philadelphia. Younger lawyers, who only know  Philadelphia’s commercial litigation practice with the Commerce Court as an available venue, might take its existence for granted. Philadelphia litigators around in pre-Commerce Court times grasp the significant difference in the litigation landscape before and after the Commerce Court, and recognize the Commerce Court has earned its place as an invaluable institution in Philadelphia’s legal community.