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Top court halts Westmoreland jury post abolishment

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Saturday, March 16, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
 

Jury commissioners will continue to be an elected position in Westmoreland County and throughout Pennsylvania after the state Supreme Court on Thursday overturned the law that allowed for the jobs to be abolished.

Westmoreland commissioners in January 2012 voted to terminate the part-time job effective at the end of the year.

The high court's unanimous ruling to overturn the abolishment means that voters will again be asked to elect one representative from each major political party to oversee the jury selection process.

But voters may actually have no say.

Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said the timing of the Supreme Court decision might dictate a de facto appointment by local political party committees.

“At this point, it is more likely that counties will fill the vacancy through the parties,” Hill said.

The deadline to file nominating petitions for the May 21 primary was earlier this week. State law does not allow for county election bureaus to receive late petitions.

Jim Montini, director of the Westmoreland County Election Bureau, said some candidates attempted to file nominating petitions for jury commissioner prior to the Supreme Court ruling, but were turned away.

“We told prospective candidates we would not accept petitions because there was no elective office,” Montini said.

Montini said he expects to take cues from the state as to how the jury commissioner election should now be conducted.

Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said county election boards will ultimately decide how those races are administered.

“It's something we are going to take a look at before we offer guidance to the counties,” Ruman said.

Westmoreland County's jury commissioners oversee an office with a budget of about $230,000. More than 25,000 prospective jurors were summoned to the courthouse last year.

The two incumbent jury commissioners said Friday they will seek another four-year term. The job pays about $17,000 in Westmoreland County.

Democrat Dan Blissman, who earlier this week declared his candidacy for the clerk of courts office, said he will seek both jobs.

Republican Debbie Irwin, who was appointed last year to the job, said she, too, wants to retain her position. Irwin suggested holding a joint primary and general election in November.

“We are representatives of the people in the direction of the jury process. I think it is important,” Irwin said.

County commissioners, along with President Judge Gary Caruso, have said the job is a function better handled through the court administrator's office.

Commissioners upon voting for the abolition of the office last year touted the move as a cost savings and a means to improve office efficiency.

Charles Anderson, chairman of the board of county commissioners, affirmed that position on Friday and expressed his disappointment with the high court's ruling.

“I think we could have saved a lot of money by abolishing it. I'm somewhat disappointed by this. It takes away the county's opportunity to be more efficient,” he said.

Hill said more than 40 counties abolished the jury commissioner elected positions during the last year.

“It's a minor office. Most counties took action to abolish it because it does not perform a vital function now,” Hill said.

Fayette County commissioners did not vote to terminate the office. One incumbent and one newcomer are running for two jury commissioner positions.

Republican incumbent Janet Trees of Franklin is seeking re-election and Democrat Lauren Mahoney Yohman of South Union is seeking her first term.

The four-year positions are part-time and pay annual salaries of $11,386, along with benefits.

Democrat incumbent jury commissioner Pamela Hudson is a candidate for the vacant office of prothonotary.

Mary Pickels contributed. Rich Cholodofsky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-830-6293 or rcholodofsky@tribweb.com. Pickels, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, can be reached at 724-836-5401 or pickels@tribweb.com.

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