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Court: Counties may end jury comm.

Published August 03. 2013 09:02AM

Commonwealth Court has again denied a request by the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners to block county commissioners from abolishing the offices of jury commissioners.

On Wednesday, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court upheld Act 4 of 2013, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett on May 6. The Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners argued that the new law violated their First Amendment right as candidates for the office of jury commissioner.

In the ruling handed down by Judge P. Kevin Brobson, he states "there is no provision in the Pennsylvania Constitution that protects the county elected office of jury commissioner from being eliminated by the legislature. Moreover, the only protection in Act 4 of 2013 afforded to jury commissioners in counties that choose to eliminate the office is the provision that allows those elected officials to serve out the remainder of their term. We find no reason to afford a candidate for elective municipal office greater rights to hold that office than the law affords the current officeholder.

"Accordingly, we conclude that Act 4 of 2013 does not violate any of the constitutional provisions upon which the Jury Commissioners rely in seeking to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief."

Larry Thompson, past president of the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners, said the decision was not unexpected.

The association has now authorized its attorneys Samuel Stretton and David Cleaver to file an appeal, which will be sent to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

"From the beginning, we knew that the Commonwealth Court was a mere weigh station on our way to the Supreme Court," Thompson said. "The Supreme Court is the most prepared and experienced court in the Commonwealth and the justices will have the final say on the complex constitutional issues in this case."

The Carbon County commissioners also weighed in on the decision.

Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, said this is something that the county has been waiting for, for some time.

He noted that the Pennsylvania Constitution does not make reference to jury commissioners in the list of local government makeup.

"They are not in the constitution," he said. "They were not provided for by law and I think by law we can eliminate that position."

Nothstein added that in May, the county again signed a resolution abolishing the office of jury commissioners at the end of their terms this year. The offices are currently held by Joanne Poluka-Maurer and Joe Steber. It will save the county about $20,000 a year.

Commissioners first signed a resolution abolishing the positions in May 2012, under Act. 108 of 2011, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the act, stating it violated the state constitution's single-subject rule.

Commissioner William O'Gurek said the recent ruling proves the court's current way of jury selection, which uses an electronic database of eligible potential jurors, is "fair and unbiased."

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.

He noted that President Judge Roger Nanovic has certified to the commissioners that the database is acceptable according to state standards.

"I think that the fact that the court administration can do it in the manner they are doing bodes well for the argument that we can do without jury commissioners and the added expenses that comes with having them," O'Gurek said.

Since Act 4 of 2013 was signed into law, 32 counties have voted to abolish the positions at the end of their terms.

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 December 2011.

In July 2012, the Commonwealth Court upheld the ruling in favor of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, 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.'"

In March 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the Commonwealth Court's ruling.

On May 6, Act 4 of 2013 was signed into allow and again allowed counties to abolish the positions. Shortly after, the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners filed a complaint with the Commonwealth Court, asking the court to declare the new law unconstitutional, and to halt its enforcement. That request was denied in June.

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