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Pa. high court says why it upheld jury panel law

| Friday, Oct. 18, 2013, 6:30 p.m.

HARRISBURG — The Legislature did not violate the separation of powers doctrine this year when it passed a law letting counties abolish their elected jury commissioners, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said Friday.

The six-justice majority laid out its reasoning in an opinion issued a month after it announced that the law passed in April was constitutional. The court said the commissioners are county positions, not judicial officers, so lawmakers did not infringe on the judicial branch.

“The fact that the elected jury commissioners cooperate, by statute, with the president judge (or another county judge temporarily) does not convert the nature of the office,” Justice Correale Stevens wrote. “Our organic law does not evolve in such a fashion.”

In a one-judge dissenting opinion, Justice Debra Todd said that because state laws that address how to select jurors envision the two commissioners joined by the president judge, doing away with them means counties would be able to adopt a variety of approaches.

The law “raises the specter of a proliferation of divergent, and possibly inadequate, jury selection methods among the counties which have abolished the office,” Todd wrote. “The impact such a balkanization of the jury selection process would have on the conduct of civil and criminal trials, and on judicial administration, should be a matter of profound concern to our court.”

Todd said she would have preferred the court either overturn the law or issue new rules about how to pick jurors.

Sam Stretton, who represents the jury commissioners and their association, said the decision indicated to him that most members of the court do not realize the important role the jury panels play in maintaining the integrity of the court system.

“If it isn't a judicial office, then why is the judiciary taking it over?” Stretton said. “That doesn't make any sense to me.”

The Legislature in 2011 permitted most counties to do away with their elected jury commissioners, but several jury commissioners and their state association sued to challenge that. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court sided with them and threw out that law on the grounds that it was included in legislation that addressed other issues, thereby violating the state constitution's single-subject requirement for laws.

By that time, dozens of counties had moved to do away with their elected commissioners, whose duties include developing procedures to pick jury lists, making sure jury panels are selected fairly and managing the large pools of people called for jury duty.

Doug Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, said 42 or 43 counties have eliminated the elected jury commissioners. None of them has adopted jury selection rules that deviate from the law that governs jury commission, said Hill, whose organization was allowed to intervene in the case.

The General Assembly moved quickly to enact a law, which again triggered a challenge by the jury commissioners' association.

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