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Bill moves to abolish jury commissioner post

| Thursday, April 25, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Westmoreland County officials could once again choose to abolish the position of jury commissioner under a bill sent to Gov. Tom Corbett on Wednesday.

The legislation by state Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster County, was approved 156-39 by the House on Wednesday after passing the Senate last week.

State lawmakers gave county commissioners the power to abolish the post in 2011, but the state Supreme Court in March overturned that law, saying it violated a state constitutional provision restricting laws to a single subject.

Commonwealth Court Judge James Gardner Collins ruled earlier this month that there was not enough time to place jury commissioner races on the May 21 primary ballot. Local political parties would have decided which candidates appeared on the November general election ballot.

“The court's decision could have a significant impact on elections this year, so it was important to move this bill and act on it swiftly,” Smucker said in a statement. “Eliminating the need to spend money on outdated row officer positions is a good example of how we can work to make government more efficient.”

But Larry Thompson, president of the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners, said his group plans to file suit in Commonwealth Court as soon as Corbett signs the bill.

In most counties, two jury commissioners of different parties work to develop procedures to create jury lists, ensure jurors are picked fairly and manage the jury pool. Forty-two counties had already eliminated their jury commissioners under the 2011 law.

“They are attempting to dim the light on the selection process of prospective jurors,” said Thompson. Many counties have said they would move the jury commissioner functions to the court administrator's office, but that means the president judge has oversight in jury selection rather than the public, he said.

Westmoreland commissioners in January 2012 voted unanimously to terminate the $17,000-a-year, part-time job effective at the end of the year. The 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 jury commissioners are doing a wonderful job for us, but technology has come along so far that ... we can have a significant savings by eliminating that office and having the court administrator take care of that,” Commissioner Charles Anderson said.

Allegheny County does not have jury commissioners. Fayette County commissioners did not vote to terminate the office.

“One of the reasons we didn't act as other counties did is you have some concern as to whether something passes muster constitutionally,” Fayette Commissioner Vincent Zapotosky said.

The county, he said, will have to look at a number of variables, including whether moving jury commissioner functions to the courts or another department would actually be more cost-effective.

“If (lawmakers) are able to move at warp speed on this ... they can move on other issues that have more germane impact on people's lives as opposed to jury commissioners,” Zapotosky said.

Fayette County's Republican jury commissioner, Janet Trees of Franklin, is seeking re-election and Democrat Lauren Mahoney Yohman of South Union is seeking a first term.

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

Pamela Hudson, the Democratic jury commissioner, is a candidate for the vacant office of prothonotary.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Kari Andren is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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