Pennsylvania counties that have eliminated the jury commissioner positions will have to reinstate them.
On Thursday, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the state's highest court, overturned Act 108 of 2011, which allowed counties to abolish the jury commissioner positions, in a 6-0 vote.
Carbon County is one of the counties that will be affected by the ruling, having already abolished the positions during a May 2012 meeting. The positions, which are currently held by Joanne Poluka-Maurer and Joe Steber, were set to expire at the end of this year.
The legal battle between the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners has been moving through the court system since the law was enacted in December 2011.
In July 2012, the Commonwealth Court upheld the ruling in favor of CCAP, which took the side of the counties in the desire to abolish the positions, because it felt the two provisions, according to the Supreme Court ruling, "fell under the unifying theme of 'county commissioners' powers.'"
The reasons the Supreme Court gave for overturning the Commonwealth Court's ruling is because it felt the law violates the state constitution's single-subject rule. The court continued that the act was improperly added to House Bill 1644, which was designed to give county commissioners the power to hold private property and farm surplus auctions online.
After Act 108 was enacted, 10 counties voted to abolish the two elected positions because new procedures took away jury commissioners duties on choosing jurors.
The original duty of the jury commissioners was to obtain names of people willing to serve as jurors for civil and criminal terms. In the past they had a very important duty in what was referred to as filling the "wheel" once a year. The court would hand down an order as to how many prospective jurors it would need for the court terms and the jury commissioners supervised obtaining the names.
Now, choosing the names of people to serve as jurors is completed by a computer, using PennDOT's list of people holding driver's licenses.
Carbon County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, who has been vocal about his support for abolishing the positions, said "I'm am furious. I'm furious at the Supreme Court. I'm furious with the legislators with always throwing things into bills that don't belong there."
He said that over 20 counties want to abolish the positions, while 11 have already abolished.
"One hundred and 40 years ago when jury commissioners didn't have computers, there was a need to ensure it (jury selection) was unbiased," Nothstein said, adding that the president judge can still excuse or eliminate any person from serving and attorneys also have the opportunity to interview prospective jurors and eliminate them if they feel it would make for a bias jury. "I think there are plenty of things in place to protect anyone that is in court."
He noted that the roles of the jury commissioners currently are to sign the juror checks, which they do at home; greet possible jurors at jury selection and hand out juror pins when they arrive; and watch as court office staff use the electronic system in jury selection.
Nothstein explained that the jury commissioners work an estimated six to seven hours a month, about one day a month; and is currently paid $10,220 annually.
He added that the new ruling will cost the county over $80,000 over the next four years.
CCAP and the county must now wait to see what they should do regarding filling the jury commissioners positions for next year since the petitioning for the upcoming May primary election has already closed.
Options could include holding a special petition period for anyone interested in the positions or do nothing and hold the jury commissioner election during the November general election. No definite answer has been determined as of press time.
In February, the board discussed possibilities that may need to occur as a result of the ruling.
The commissioners had not set the salaries for the jury commissioners for 2016-2017, but will now have to see if a special meeting to set those salaries must be called or if it would just fall under the rest of the elected official position salaries set for those years, giving the same percentage increases.