Pa. Supreme Court convenes in Old City Hall for the first time since 1802

By Jon Campisi | Sep 14, 2011

It was truly a historic day for Pennsylvania courts, and not just because it marked the first time that cameras have ever taped a session of the state’s highest court.

On Tuesday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the nation’s oldest appellate court, held proceedings inside the Old City Hall building in the city’s historic district.

The occasion marked the first time the commonwealth’s highest court has convened in the historic space in more than two centuries.

The momentous day was special for another reason; Pennsylvania Cable Network television cameras made their debut before the seven justices.

In a decision announced last month, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said it would start allowing videotaping of its proceedings. Cameras have traditionally been banned from Pennsylvania courtrooms, and they are still not allowed in trial courts and district courts.

However, the PCN has operated what the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts has called “successful videotaping programs” in both Commonwealth Court and Superior Court, signaling cameras could be successful at the supreme court level as well.

Still, arguments will not be shown live. Instead, the court proceedings will air on PCN after they are taped.

On Tuesday morning, the seven justices seemed to relish the opportunity to hear arguments in such a meaningful public space.

“This is indeed a historic day,” Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille told those in attendance, which included local and national media representatives, National Park Service personnel and dignitaries such as former Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter.

In a sight rarely, if ever, seen inside a Pennsylvania courtroom, still photographers from various news outlets were observed snapping away as the justices took their seats.

In his brief remarks concerning the day’s historic nature, Castille also addressed the television cameras, saying the court believes having camera presence can only help better educate the citizenry as to the goings-on of the high court.

After Castille finished speaking, Independence National Historical Park Superintendent Cynthia MacLeod addressed the court, telling the justices about the historic space they occupied for the morning and afternoon.

“Reading up on your [judicial] history has been fascinating,” she said.

Before moving to Washington, D.C., the United States Supreme Court convened in Old City Hall, which is located at the corner 5th and Chestnut streets within Independence National Historical Park. The building sits next to Independence Hall and across the street from the Liberty Bell.

The U.S. Supreme Court met in the building from 1791 to 1800, when Philadelphia was the country’s capitol.

“I appreciate the spirit with which you come here to convene this historic session,” MacLeod told the court, which includes two justices with Philadelphia ties, Castille and Justice Seamus McCaffery.

Castille, a lawyer who worked in the public sector and in private practice, served as the city’s district attorney from 1986 to 1991. He was elected to the state supreme court in 1993.

McCaffery, a 20-year veteran of the Philadelphia Police Department, got his judicial start when he was elected to Philadelphia’s Municipal Court in 1993. He got elected to the supreme court in 2007.

Old City Hall was used by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court from 1790 to 1802. After that, the high court met at Independence Hall, Congress Hall, and, eventually, the new City Hall, which serves as the court’s present-day Philadelphia home. (The court also meets in Harrisburg, the commonwealth’s capitol).

During his remarks, Castille talked about the various historic city buildings where the court has met throughout the years. The structures, he said, played a major role in the nation’s founding.

“The buildings have played an important role in the formulating of the United States of America,” Castille said.

During the ceremony, National Park Service police were observed patrolling the historic building, as was a deputy U.S. marshal with a bomb-sniffing canine.

Before the justices had taken their seats, a man was overheard remarking to Castille about the significance of Old City Hall, which normally serves as an exhibit space.

“Morning chief,” the man called over to Castille. “Now you’re in a real courtroom.”

After the chief’s remarks, the court heard oral arguments in a handful of cases, covering everything from aviation law to prescription drug liability.

According to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, the historic setting for Tuesday’s session was chosen in commemoration of Constitution Day, which is actually on Sept. 17, but is marked by a weeklong schedule of activities.

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