Counties in the commonwealth can abolish jury commissioner positions if they so desire, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled.
On Tuesday, the state's highest court affirmed Commonwealth Court's August decision that denied a request by the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners to stop Act 4 of 2013, which was signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett on May 6. The association argued that the new law violated their First Amendment right as candidates of the office of jury commissioner.
Carbon County Commissioner Wayne Nothstein, chairman, said that the county is very happy about the decision.
"We've been waiting for this for a long time," he said, adding that the county will officially abolish the two positions at the end of the year.
Commissioner Thomas J. Gerhard echoed Nothstein's thoughts about being happy about the decision.
"It took a while," he said. "The decision was first overturned and I think they got it right this time. We're happy about this."
Nothstein said that the abolishment of the positions will save the county over $20,000 annually and close to a quarter-million dollars over a 10-year period. The offices are currently held by Joanne Poluka-Maurer and Joe Steber.
"It's a big savings to the county," he said.
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.
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.'"
The Carbon Commissioners first signed a resolution abolishing the positions in May 2012, under Act. 108 of 2011, but in March 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court overturned the act, stating it violated the state constitution's single-subject rule.
On May 6, Act 4 of 2013 was signed into allow and again allowed counties to abolish the positions.
Later that month, the county again signed a resolution abolishing the office of jury commissioners at the end of their terms this year.
Shortly after the law was signed, 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 and another appeal by the association was denied in August.
Since Act 4 of 2013 was signed into law, 42 counties have voted to abolish the positions at the end of their terms.
In other matters, the board acted on the following items:
• Approved an agreement with Collaborate Ideas and Images LLC of Long Island City, N.Y., for permission to utilize the county courtroom 1 on Sept. 21, for the filming of a commercial for the release of John Grisham's novel "Sycamore Row." The total payment to the county shall be $500.
• Reappointed Ann Dotter of Jim Thorpe, Antoinette Gibson of Tamaqua and Jeanne Miller of Nesquehoning to the Children and Youth Advisory Board. Their terms shall be until May 1, 2015.
• Reappointed Diane B. Luedtke of Jim Thorpe and Kathleen Schwick of Lehighton to the Children and Youth Advisory Board. Their terms shall be until May 1, 2016.
• Approve an agreement with the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, Inc. (Second Harvest Food Bank) to provide services as lead agency under the Carbon County Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program. The term of the agreement shall be from Oct. 1, until Sept. 30, 2014.
• Approve the Act 101, Section 904 Recycling Program Performance grant application to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection requesting reimbursement for collected recyclable materials for 2012. The county is anticipating receiving $12,000 from the grant.
• Gerhard thanked the Jim Thorpe Borough and Betsy Ahner for addressing an issue at the crosswalk between the courthouse annex and borough sidewalk. Two county employees had been slightly injured in the crosswalk due to deterioration of the roadway. The borough fixed the area in question.
• Area merchants again addressed the board, asking that they reconsider the $10 parking fee in the county parking lot because it harms business in the borough. Dan Hugos, who was representing the Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency, read a letter outlining the problem and submitted to the commissioners.