Jury commissioners lose in C’wealth Court, plan appeal

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The Pennsylvania Association of Jury Commissioners plans to file an appeal this week with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court after losing an appellate court case that allows county commissioners to abolish the elected office.


Commonwealth Court ruled 4-3 that the law, signed by Gov. Tom Corbett late last year, stands.


G. Richard Zimmerman of North Strabane Township, Republican jury commissioner for Washington County, is one of the plaintiffs in the case.


The Washington County commissioners voted earlier this year to abolish the office once Zimmerman and his Democratic counterpart, Judith Fisher, finish their current terms in 2013.


“We are confident that the Supreme Court will overturn the decision,” said Larry Thompson, president of the Pennsylvania Association of Jury Commissioners. “The close vote by the Commonwealth Court judges proves there is a sharp division over the constitutionality of the law passed by the Legislature.”


Attorneys Samuel Stretton and David Cleaver, representing the jury commissioners, were authorized Friday by the executive committee of the jury commissioners to pursue the appeal.


The jury commissioners’ association contends the law is unconstitutional because it violates the separation of powers. Jury commissioners are part of the judicial branch of government and thus the Legislature has no authority to legislate its demise. The jury commissioners also contend the law violated the state’s single subject law. Under the law, the Legislature is prohibited from bundling different laws into one bill for a vote.


The majority of the court, in a 24-page opinion written by Judge P. Kevin Brobson, ruled that the title of the bill, which included abolishing the office of jury commissioner, “did not deceive the public or legislators” and “the Jury Commissioners Association appears to ignore the fact that county commissioners have the power to enact ordinances that could fill any vacuum created by the abolishment of the of the office of jury commissioner.”


In the dissenting opinion, Commonwealth Court President Judge Dan Pellegrini stated he sees no connection between selling excess farm equipment and the elimination of the office of jury commissioner. The two subjects were twinned in the legislation. “The majority opinion does not ‘encourage an open, deliberative, and accountable government,’” Pellegrini wrote.


The court rejected the jury commissioners’ argument that they are part of the judiciary.


“There is no support in the law for the proposition that the elected office of jury commissioner is part of the judicial system, because the courts have no constitutional authority to exercise control over this statutorily-created office,” according to the majority opinion. “It is clear that the General Assembly has the general power to repeal laws it has enacted.”


Attorney General Linda Kelly and Corbett are no longer parties in the case, according to a footnote in the opinion.


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