Monday, January 26, 2009

PA: Abolish Jury Commissioner

If only this were more widespread.

A relic? Verdict's mixed
Post of jury commissioner is targeted, defended.
By Larry King

Inquirer Staff Writer

Pity, for a moment, Pennsylvania's jury commissioners.
Few people know who they are, let alone what they do.

Derided by some, targeted for extinction by others, the obscure county-level row office is again under fire this year from local and state officials who consider it a governmental relic, as vital as an appendix to the body politic.

Jury commissioners "should have gone out with the buggy whip," Bucks County Commissioner James Cawley said, urging state legislators to help wipe out the post.

"They don't do very much," added Bucks County Judge David W. Heckler, who long has favored axing the elected jobs, which date to just after the Civil War.

Jury commissioners are responsible for supplying the courts with a qualified pool of potential jurors. To keep politics out of that task, counties must elect two, each from a different political party.

Once a lotto-like task of manually pulling names from a jury wheel, assembling the lists has become computerized. Names are plucked randomly from voter-registration rolls, driver's-license databases, and other sources, depending on the county.

The additional duties - mailing jury summonses and questionnaires, dealing with excusal requests, and staffing the jury assembly room - are still overseen largely by jury commissioners in some counties, such as Chester and Montgomery.

But in others, county staffers handle most of the work.

"Virtually all of our day-to-day duties are covered by our staff," said Douglas Praul, Bucks County's court administrator.

Which leaves the two elected jury commissioners to do . . . what?

Having pondered that question during a budget crunch, Bucks County commissioners last month cut their part-time jury commissioners' pay from $19,600 to the statutory minimum of $10,500, and eliminated their county benefits package - an annual savings of almost $50,000.

Without a state law granting permission, Bucks could not cut the position entirely. The commissioners asked members of their legislative delegation to start working on that.

They might have to get in line. Lawmakers from at least two other counties - Cumberland and Lebanon - are on the same mission.

Counties that have adopted home-rule charters do not need state permission to eliminate row offices. All but one of them have cut out jury commissioners, leaving their duties to court officials. Delaware County still has two bipartisan jury commissioners, but they are appointed by the county council.

Three other counties - Berks, Dauphin and York - erased the positions after enabling laws were passed in Harrisburg. All are third-class counties (population between 210,000 and 499,999), the only group authorized by law to do so.

State Rep. Frank Farry and Sen. Robert "Tommy" Tomlinson have agreed to sponsor the Bucks initiative, and the two Republicans said they would seek to make the bill as sweeping as possible.

"Our preference is legislation that would allow any county, regardless of class, to take a vote to abolish the office," said Douglas Hill, executive director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania.

Not a chance, vowed Mary Jane Dellafiora, a 19-year jury commissioner in Indiana County.

"Every year, we have efforts coming at us right and left to do nasty things to us," said Dellafiora, a past president of the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners. "They love to use the word archaic for us. I take it personally."

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