HARRISBURG – A state judge promised Wednesday to rule quickly about how jury commissioners should be handled in this year’s Pennsylvania elections now that the law that let 42 counties abolish the office has been overturned.
Commonwealth Court Judge James Gardner Colins said during a two-hour hearing in Harrisburg that he was considering three options: placing the offices on the May primary ballot under an expedited schedule, letting the parties nominate candidates for the fall election or keeping incumbent jury commissioners in office until 2015.
The state Supreme Court threw out the law last month on the grounds that it violated the state constitution’s requirement that bills be confined to a single subject. Legislative leaders have asked the justices to reconsider, and a state senator is seeking sponsors for a bill to re-authorize the abolition.
Under the May 21 primary option, Colins said, candidates would circulate petitions by April 15 and courts would resolve challenges by April 29. One problem with that is that the deadline to send ballots to overseas military personnel in remote areas has already passed. It would present logistical challenges and would be costly.
Lawyers for the county commissioners’ association and the secretary of state spoke favorably of allowing the parties to pick candidates, as is the process when a vacancy occurs after a death or for some other reason. Minor parties would also be allowed to nominate.
But it’s conceivable that in some counties, where the cost savings are a political issue, the parties might not act, and the lawyer for the jury commissioners’ association said elections are preferable to appointments, and holding primaries was not an insurmountable task.
Colins speculated that if he orders primaries, president judges in some of the counties may challenge the decision.
A state elections official said one hurdle to a primary would be the need to record new custom audio ballots for the sight-impaired, a time-consuming process that could be additionally costly when done by vendors at the last minute.
“I don’t think the cost can be a consideration in what is really a democratic process,” said Sam Stretton, who represents the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners.
Colins anticipated criticism of the third option, letting incumbents remain, and lawyers for both sides said it might not be constitutional.
“No doubt that would gain the Supreme Court’s ear in the quickest fashion,” he said.
At several points, the discussion touched on the prospect that a new law could be enacted that again authorize eliminating the offices.
“You’re not suggesting the Legislature would have legislative pique and would fast-track a bill to show who’s really boss?” Colins said. “You’re not suggesting that?”
Because two jury commissioners serve in each county, and can’t belong to the same party, the primary election is the one that matters.
Jury commissioners are paid by the counties to develop procedures to pick jury lists, to ensure they are chosen fairly and to manage jury pools. Critics say that in some counties, the job is a wasteful anachronism because of computerization and that their duties are often performed by court staff. In one county alone, the savings by abolishing the offices were estimated at $50,000 a year.
A court filing by the jury commissioners’ association said the office was established in 1868 out of concern that sheriffs and county commissioners had too much authority to set jury pools, and that political considerations were able to affect the juries’ composition.