What's a Prothonotary?President Harry Truman, on a Washington County visit, once asked, "What the hell is a Prothonotary?" It is a common question lawyers hear. Although it has an ancient common law origin, as far as we can tell, the species exists only in Pennsylvania today.
Black's Law Dictionary defines "prothonotary" as "A chief clerk in certain courts of law." So it is in Pennsylvania, the Prothonotary is the chief clerk for civil matters for the Court of Common Pleas of each county. We also have separate "Clerk of Courts" for the criminal courts and a "Register of Wills" and "Clerk of Orphans Court" for matters involving estates of decedents and minors. Each is elected for a four-year term in all counties except those few who, by Home Rule Charter, have consolidated some row offices (Allegheny, for example).
The Prothonotary operates the largest of the clerk offices. For instance, in Washington County, the Prothonotary manages a staff of 11, who handle some 9,000 filings and 120,000 secondary filings each year.
About 50% of the filings and work of the office involve suits filed at law or in equity in the Court of Common Pleas. Every complaint, subsequent pleading, petition, motion and order are filed with the Prothonotary, and a simple case may have dozens of filings.
In addition, all federal, state, county and municipal liens, judgments and executions, IRS claims, appeals from municipal actions (assessments, zoning, etc.), election appeals, and appeals from suspension of driver's licenses are filed with the Prothonotary. Relatively new are the hundreds of Protection from Abuse (PFA) actions which inundate the courts and are filed with the Prothonotary.
The Prothonotary's Office is a major port-of-call for title examiners, for many of the liens and claims which affect real property titles are recorded there. It not only accepts for filing but retains records of legal importance for many years.
The Prothonotary is not a policymaking office. Its powers are purely statutory in origin. Recent issues involving the power to reject filings for time, format or other reasons have been generally resolved against the Prothonotary. The questioned document must be docketed and timestamped, with unresolved issues left to the Court to decide.
So now you know what a Prothonotary is, and how that office provides valuable service not just to the courts and lawyers, but also to the citizens of each county.