The Pennsylvania Supreme Court discussed the nature of judgment liens in the case of In re: Upset Sale, Tax Claim Bureau of Berks County, 505 Pa. 327, 479 A.2d 940, 943-44 (1984). The Supreme Court stated as follows:
Judgment liens are a product of centuries of statutes which authorize a judgment creditor to seize and sell the land of debtors at a judicial sale to satisfy their debts out of the proceeds of the sale. The judgment represents a binding judicial determination of the rights and duties between the parties, and establishes their debtor-creditor relationship for all the world to notice when the judgment is recorded in a Prothonotary’s Office . . .
The judgment lien represents security for the underlying debt, Commonwealth v. Meyer, 169 Pa. Super. 40, 82 A.2d 298 (1951), and conveys a right of execution to the judgment creditor in satisfaction of his debt . . .
The existence of a judgment lien prevents a debtor from encumbering or conveying any property he might own in such a way to divest the effect of the judgment, while also preventing later lien holders from satisfying their debt without first paying the earlier lien. The judgment lien thus constitutes a liquidated claim, Educational Society v. W.D. Gordon, 310 Pa. 470, 166 A. 499 (1933), which has value to the judgment creditor. The judgment can be assigned, pledged or used as collateral and is a valuable form of property . . .
A judgment lien is called a general lien – unlike a mortgage which is a specific lien against a particular piece of real property. Such has been the recognized law in this Commonwealth for some time. Ruth’s Appeal, 54 Pa. 173 (1867). Our law recognizes that a judgment is a hold on all the debtor’s real estate without discrimination, but our courts have consistently concluded that the judgment creditor is not interested in the property as property, but only in the lien. As was said in Cover v. Black, 1 Barr 493 (1845): “The judgment creditor has neither jus in re nor ad rem as regards the [debtor’s] property. He has a lien, and the law gives a right to satisfaction out of the property, and that is all.” Grevermeyer v. Southern Mutual Insurance Company, 62 Pa. 340 (1869).
While judgment-creditors have neither estate nor right in the lands of their debtor, it has never been the law that they do not have any protectable property interest. Witmer Appeal, 45 Pa. 455 (1863). Quite to the contrary, the judgment itself is property which may be defended by forced judicial sale of the debtor’s land. It is quite properly said that the judgment creditors are interested in the property of the debtor only because they have a right to seize it, sell it, and satisfy the debt from the proceeds of the sale. It is this very right of execution which gives a judgment lien its effectiveness and great value.
Mortgages are liens – and hence property interests – on specific assets. A judgment is also a lien–and hence a property interest–covering all real property of the debtor against whom it is entered. Judgments are no less property interests because they are general security interests, attaching to all of a debtor’s real property within the territorial jurisdiction of the court among whose records they are filed, rather than to a specific parcel.
In Re: Upset Sale, at 943-44.
(c) 2010 James S. Tupitza