If you are new to Pennsylvania, one of the office titles you will surely encounter eventually at the county level is that of the Prothonotary. Most people have the same reaction to the term the Harry S Truman is suppose have said upon being introduced to a Prothonotary, "What the hell is a Prothonotary?" and who was said to have later added that it was the most impressive-sounding political title he ever heard.
The Prothonotary is an elected Constitutional office in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The word "Prothonotary" is a Greek and Latin term meaning "First Scribe." The Prothonotary is the Clerk of the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas who is elected to a four year term.
In Pennsylvania, it dates all the way back to 1683 when William Penn appointed the first Prothonotary.
The word prothonotary dates back to Ecclesiastical Law as being the highest administrator of the Court of Rome and the First Notary, known as the Prelate of a body of 12 Notaries. When a case was ready for trial, the Prothonotary would notify the Judges when to appear in Court to try the case.
The word prothonotary is recorded in English since 1447, as "principal clerk of a court," from L.L. prothonotarius (c.400), from Greek protonotarios "first scribe," originally the recorder of the court of the Byzantine empire, from Greek πρῶτος protos "first" + Latin notarius (see notary); the -h- appeared in Medieval Latin.
The title was awarded to certain high-ranking notaries.
A Protonotarios in mid-Byzantine (7th-10th c.) administration was also recorded as a rough equivalent of a commissar for the Emperor in Constantinople in various themataor provinces. A Protonotarios was also responsible for overseeing the gathering of resources -monetary and material- by the Thematarch or province governor in preparation of a military campaign.
When the English Court system was established, the Prothonotary acted as the chief administrator in the English Courts of the King's Bench and Common Pleas. When our American Court system was set up, we also adopted the same procedure as those being used by the English Courts. Every state in our United States has its Clerk of the Common Pleas Court but very few are titled as Prothonotaries. The older New England States and Pennsylvania still have their Prothonotaries.
(Source: Wikipedia and Berks County)
Pennsylvania Prothonotary Today
It is one of three major offices in almost every Pennsylvania Courthouse: the Recorder of Deeds, the Register of Wills, and the Prothonotary,
The Prothonotary in most other states is known as the Court Clerk. In Pennsylvania, the "Court Clerk" (Clerk of the Courts) is usually dealing specifically with the Criminal Court, while the Prothonotary is involved with non-criminal court records and filings, exclusive of property deed recording and wills (and marriage licenses) -- the keeper/clerk of the civil records/division for the court. Work is generated from the court and through filings from both attorneys and the general public. For example, name changes, civil and family court records, passports, judgments and liens will be handled or have corresponding records administered by the Prothonotary.
The Prothonotary also provides the avenue for external oversight of the Judiciary without the legislative or executive branch of government's interference with its actions or independence. This elected official perseveres for the public unfettered access to a fair and accurate record of opinions, decisions and judgments of the court. (Source: Lancaster County)
NOTE: There is a County Clerk position that is in support of the County Commissioners and handles all county government documents, meeting notes, agendas, etc as well as the official business of the county, including county grants and contracts. It is not related to the Clerk of Court or Prothonotary.
Not all Pennsylvania counties have an elected position of Prothonotary. For example, in Delaware County the functions that would be have been previously handled by the Prothonotary are now performed by it's Judicial Support Department's Civil Division.
Below are examples of various greater Southeastern Pennsylvania counties and what they say about the responsibilities of their county Prothonotary office:
Chester County Prothonotary
Chester County's Prothonotary essentially handles the civil side of the county courts administration, as well as passports. (By way, it used to handle things like business and fictitious name registrations until taken over by the Pennsylvania Department of State in 1984.)
Mission Statement: To function as the legal custodian of all civil instruments filed with the Court of Common Pleas, in accordance with the laws of civil procedure of the Commonwealth and the Chester County Rules of Court, by maintaining accurate indices and dockets, providing security for the documents, and making them available to the public.
Organizational Chart for Chester County Prothonotary Office
Delaware County -- an Exception
Prior to adoption of the Home Rule Charter, Delaware County had separate Clerk of Courts and Prothonotary offices. They are now part of one Judicial Support Department with a Criminal Division and a Civil Division (previous Prothonotary).
The Civil Division handles all civil cases which involve suits by individuals, unincorporated and incorporated businesses, liens against properties and judgments on individuals are also filed and maintained in this office. The office also provides a Court Clerk for each sitting judge and others handling matters pertaining directly to the courts. Notaries must register their signatures in this office. Application for passports are certified here and divorce filings are handled by this office also.
The Office generates in various fees enough revenue to make it nearly self sufficient.
Philadelphia's Office of the Prothonotary (of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia) began in the time of William Penn. It is one of the oldest, continuously held legal offices in the Western Hemisphere. The Prothonotary is defined as the officer who officiates as principal Clerk of the Courts [Civil]; and the Clerk is defined as an officer of the Court who keeps its records, keeps the great seal, issues processes, enters judgment and orders and certifies records. The office is responsible for processing the millions of documents that directly and materially affect the legal relationships and legal commerce of the citizens of Philadelphia.
Bucks County Prothonotary
Bucks County's Prothonotary has administrative control over and responsibility for all official documents and records of the civil and family divisions. It is the duty of the office to record such legal documents as Appeals, Assignments, Commencement of Actions, Equity, Divorce, Complaints, Executions, Final Orders, Judgments, Liens, Name Change Petitions, Signatures of Notaries Public, Satisfactions, Subpoena's, Exceptions to Judicial or Tax Sales, Revivals and Minor's Compromise. Additionally, the Office of the Prothonotary initiates judgments entered by magisterial district justices to the Court of Common Pleas. The prothonotary also processes appeals from the magisterial district justices to the Court of Common Pleas as well as appeals from the Court of Common Pleas to the Superior, Supreme and Commonwealth Courts.
The mission of the Office is to see that these documents are docketed, microfilmed and processed timely and in accordance with State requirements.
Over the years the office recorded documents including a list of stallions, doctors and dentists, slaves and their respective markings and brands, and also Lunacy Dockets. The records date back to 1684 and are preserved in northern Pennsylvania.
Montgomery County Prothonotary
The Montgomery County Prothonotary's office assists with passports, protection from abuse (PFA's), and the filing, storage, and distribution of civil documents. Click here for their FAQ's page.
Berks County Prothonotary
The Berks County Prothonotary is the Chief Clerk and Recordkeeper for all filings related to Civil Cases. The Office is located in the County Courthouse and responsible for the filing, recording and processing of all Civil actions, Equity actions, Judgments, Federal and Local Tax Liens, City Liens, Family Court matters, Arbitrations, License Suspension Appeals, Appeals to Higher Court, Uniform Commercial Code filings, and Applications for Passports.
"Also, we file and record all Judgments, Orders, Decrees of Court and mail notice of such entries to parties and/or counsel in each case. We issue Writs and process many other legal documents. We review pleadings filed for compliance with the Pennsylvania Rules of Civil Procedure and Berks County Rules of Court. Filing fees are collected for services rendered and turned over to the County and State."
Lehigh County -- another exception
On January 1, 1978, in accordance with the newly established Home Rule Charter in Lehigh County, the Office of the Clerk of Quarter Sessions and the Office of the Prothonotary were merged as one and is now known as the Clerk of Courts. The Clerk of Courts Office consists of a Civil and Criminal Division.
The Lehigh County Clerk of Courts - Civil Division
Lancaster County Prothonotary
The Lancaster County Office of Prothonotary is responsible for the recording and filing of legal papers of a widely diversified character such as: protection from abuse; custody; secured transactions; quiet titles; change of names; administers oaths; power of attorney registrations; passports; school audit reports; treasurer sale deed records; petitions for opening ballot boxes on recounts; judgment notes; suspension of operators license; mechanical liens; municipal liens; county liens; State sales tax liens; State unemployment compensation liens; financial statement registrations; Federal income tax liens; issues divorce certificates; issues naturalization certificates; and certification of District Justice .
Some of the powers and duties of the Prothonotary are as follows: Signs and seals all writs, processes numerous other documents of the Common Pleas Court such as ejectments, appeal on land damages, collisions, court exhibits, naturalization records, and is the collector of State taxes and other State fees on legal documents. The Prothonotary also certifies and delivers all appeal cases to the State Superior and Supreme courts. It is custodian of Common Pleas Court Funds and impounded divorce testimony.
Northampton County Prothonotary
Northampton County Office of the Clerk of Court-Civil is more commonly known as the Prothonotary's Office.
The primary function of this office is to docket and file all legal documents pertaining to civil cases, such as divorce and custody complaints, civil lawsuits, equity actions, mortgage foreclosure actions and indexing of judgments as well as federal and commonwealth tax liens. The office issues writs of execution for sheriff sales on real estate and personal property. The office also processes passport applications for the Philadelphia Passport Agency. Twice a year we assist in the process of naturalization of new citizens.
The office also dockets all protection from abuse matters. The protection from abuse clerks assist the victim with the paper work to be filled out and with the help of court administration to get the victim before a judge for a temporary abuse order and at a later date a final order.
The office consists of the clerk of court-civil/ prothonotary, 3 deputy prothonotaries who have the authority to sign documents on behalf of the prothonotary and assist in supervising the office, 6 clerks who process civil matters 2 clerks who process protection from abuse cases and a file clerk.
Related Prothonotary and Court Links
Common Pleas Court Contact Information (Prothonotary)
Russell Index System (source: Beaver County Historical Society)
FYI: This article is about the legal offices of prothonotary. For information about the species of bird, please see Prothonotary Warbler.
Copyright 2008 by Lawrence Yerkes. All Rights Reserved.