New bill to abolish jury commissioners is signed
On Monday, Gov. Tom Corbett once again signed into law a bill giving county commissioners the power to abolish the offices of jury commissioner.
And, once again, the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners vows to challenge the law.
"They will appeal PA Act 4 of 2013 in Commonwealth Court in very short order," said Association President Larry Thompson.
"Act 4 is a very dangerous law that should never have seen the light of day or the ink of a governor's pen," he said. "By removing historical language that in years past protected elected offices from this type of political aggression in the year they stood for election, county commissioners are now empowered to abolish the elected office of Jury Commissioner by majority vote at the end of 2013."
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania favors the law, arguing that technological advances have made the office of jury commissioner obsolete.
Efforts to reach commission members early Wednesday were unsuccessful.
Carbon County Commissioner Chairman Wayne Nothstein has said that juries are now selected by computer, and that abolishing the office would save about $20,000 a year.
Now that Corbett has signed the bill, SB 808, into law, Nothstein said, his board will again take up the matter at its May 17 public meeting.
But Thompson contends the office is needed.
"For nearly 145 years, elected jury commissioners have provided the people's oversight of the selection process for prospective jurors in the various counties. The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has long maintained that the office of jury commissioner is antiquated and of no real relevance in an age when prospective jurors are selected by computer. This position is designed to confuse the public and mask the central question on the rule of law," he said.
"The central question is not the method employed to select prospective jurors, but who or whom will proprietary oversight of the selection process be vested? Will proprietary oversight continue to be vested in the people's elected representatives, or will it be vested in court administrators who are hired by the president judge and answer only to him or her?" Thompson said.
He cited the speed of the latest bill's passage into law.
"In just 32 days, SB 808 (now Act 4) was introduced, passed and signed into law. Will Pennsylvania's political class move this fast on reforming their generous taxpayer funded pensions?" Thompson said. "All of this will ultimately be decided in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Commonwealth Court is merely the initial skirmish of the final legal battle over public oversight of the selection process for selective jurors in Pennsylvania."
SB 808, approved by the Senate on April 16 and by the House on April 24, and signed by Corbett on Monday, has a convoluted history. The law allows third through eighth class counties to adopt resolutions abolishing the office of jury commissioner upon of the completion of the current jury commissioner's term.
Locally, state senators David G. Argall, who co-sponsored the bill, and John Yudichak both approved the bill, as did representatives Doyle Heffley and Jerry Knowles.
Commissioners in 42 counties, including Carbon and Schuylkill, had voted under a 2011 law to abolish the office of jury commissioner after the current terms ended. But on March 14, the state Supreme Court overturned the law, ruling that it violated a provision in the state constitution which bars lawmakers from tacking unrelated issues onto bills.
State lawmakers reacted quickly, drafting SB 808.