Counties again vote to abolish jury officials

Counties vote once again to abolish jury officials

May 16, 2013
The sign over the door to the jury commissioners' office at Washington County Courthouse

For the second time in 16 months, Washington County commissioners voted to abolish the office of jury commissioner.

As it was in February 2012, the vote Thursday was unanimous.

Also Thursday, Greene County commissioners voted unanimously, for the second time in five months, to abolish the post.

Washington County Commission Chairman Larry Maggi said this means the office, already barred by order of the state Supreme Court from the May 21 primary ballot, will not appear on the Washington County ballot in November unless a court order directs otherwise.

The latest version of the law requires county commissioners to review procedures to make sure lists of potential jurors are a “representative cross-section of the community.”

The state Supreme Court in March struck down a similar law because the Legislature “bundled” it with unrelated bills, saying that the action obscured it from public scrutiny. The state’s highest court declined to address the constitutional issue of whether county commissioners, who act in both a legislative and executive capacity, can abolish an office related to the judiciary. The president of the state Jury Commissioners Association said his organization will appeal on constitutional grounds the act Gov. Tom Corbett signed just last month.

Judith Fisher, Washington County’s Democratic jury commissioner, said she expects to be one of the appellants in the Commonwealth Court case. Richard Zimmerman, her Republican counterpart, also expressed a willingness to add his name to the case.

“I don’t know why they didn’t (consider) the separation of powers in the first place,” Zimmerman said of the state Supreme Court decision earlier this spring.

Although the 2011 law has been through two Pennsylvania appellate courts, in the latest case, Commonwealth Court will be acting on it as a case of “original jurisdiction,” which is used for matters of statewide importance.

Under a system that has been in place since the 19th century, one jury commissioner candidate representing each of the two major political parties within a county is elected to a four-year term.

Forty-two of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties abolished the office of jury commissioner. Washington County estimates it will save $80,000 a year by replacing the officeholders with a computer database for jury selection.

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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