State Supreme Court overturns jury commissioner ruling

March 14, 2013
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Left, Washington County Republican Jury Commissioner Richard Zimmerman; Right ,Washington County Democratic Jury Commissioner Judith Fisher

The state’s highest court ruled Thursday that the Legislature erred in bundling unrelated pieces of legislation, prohibited by a provision of the Pennsylvania Constitution, when giving counties the option of abolishing the office of jury commissioner.

The court, in a 6-0 ruling declared that, because of the procedure the Legislature followed in 2011, the act “clearly, palpably and plainly violates the single-subject rule” of the state Constitution,” Justice Max Baer wrote.

Even though the office of jury commissioner apparently will remain, it was unclear Thursday whether candidates would be permitted to file for the reinstated seats in the May primary. The deadline for filing was Tuesday.

The high court, in a 15-page opinion, found that until it was outlawed by the Constitution, this practice, known as “log-rolling,” kept separate topics from being scrutinized by the public as transparently as they could have been if they were legislated individually, or when the likelihood of individual passage was slight.

The jury commissioners’ association and those who were seeking to have the law overturned, including Washington County Republican Jury Commissioner Richard Zimmerman, “have met the high standard in this instance,” Baer wrote.

Lumped in with the jury commissioner issue was an amendment to the County Code relating to surplus farm equipment and allowing commissioners of third- through eighth-class counties to auction personal property online.

The bill then went to the State Senate, where the jury commissioner abolishment was added in committee. The Senate passed the legislation Nov. 16, 2011, by a 40-9 vote with no discussion and it went to the House floor for concurrence in the amendments on Dec. 5, 2011, passing 149-40 after a short debate. Ten days later, Gov. Tom Corbett signed the bill into what became known as Act 108.

Commissioners in Washington County, and later in 2012, Greene County, abolished the office of jury commissioner.

The counties could not act on the matter during 2013, the year in which jury commissioners would be running for four-year terms.

So that the office of jury commissioner could appear on the May ballot, the officeholders and their association also asked for help from the state’s highest court.

But the Supreme Court, in a footnote, found “a fatal procedural defect” in the appellants’ petition, saying it should have first gone to Commonwealth Court, which raises the question of whether candidates will be allowed to file for the May primary.

Zimmerman, who attended argument last week before the Supreme Court in Philadelphia, when told of the court’s ruling Thursday, said, “I’m still politicking and getting my petitions signed.”

Of the decision, Zimmerman said, “I think it’s a fair judgment. The Supreme Court realized the issues involved and they voted according to the Constitution of Pennsylvania.”

When told the Supreme Court had ruled, Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi, said of the decision, “That surprises me. We haven’t got the court opinion. Our solicitor will review it. We will be talking with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and our state legislators to see what this means.”

Larry Spahr, Washington County director of elections, said, “I’m sure there will be some court intervention. We’ll see what happens. This is like the voter ID last year – on again, off again.”

Larry Thomson, former Butler County jury commissioner and president of the state association, talked with attorney Sam Stretton, who litigated the case on behalf of the appellants, and said the Chester County lawyer was preparing a revised petition for Commonwealth Court, which, in this matter, was where the case originated.

“I’ve been living this for a year and a half,” Thomson said, noting that he will be contacting all 56 counties that were affected by Act 108. “I’m passionate about the Constitution.”

Eight counties, including Allegheny, abolished the office of jury commissioner when they adopted Home Rule. Three more – Berks, Dauphin and York – abolished the office through enabling legislation.

Commissioners in about 30 of the 56 counties voted to do away with their jury commissioners.

“The vast majority of them came on board in December because they realized if they were going to act, they had to act by the end of 2012,” Thomson said.

He also cautioned that “boards of county commissioners should be very, very sober when they approach issues of Constitutionality.

“They violated the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the taxpayers will now pay for the consequences of such action if they have to hold special elections. The voters should take note of the actions of their county commissioners. They were warned repeatedly.”

The primary is scheduled for May 21.

Judith Fisher, Washington County’s Democratic Jury commissioner, attempted to file nominating petitions before the close of business Tuesday. Spahr rejected her petitions on the advice of the county solicitors, but Fisher contacted her attorney and obtained written notification that she attempted to file before the deadline.

She did not return a call for comment Thursday afternoon.

Joining with Baer in the opinion were Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices Thomas G. Saylor, J. Michael Eakin, Debra McCloskey Todd and Seamus P. McCaffery.

The court noted that Justice Joan Orie Melvin did not participate in either the consideration or decision. The suspended justice was convicted last month in Allegheny County Court on corruption charges of allowing state employees to do political work for her Supreme Court campaigns.

Barbara S. Miller covers politics, Washington County government and a variety of other topics for the Observer-Reporter. She is a graduate of Washington & Jefferson College, majoring in English and history. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbarb.

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