Court: Jury commissioner cannot be cut
SHAMOKIN - The position of county jury commissioner will not be on the ballot for the May 21 primary election despite last week's decision by the state Supreme Court to overturn a law allowing the abolition of the posts.
In January 2012, Northumberland County Commissioners Vinny Clausi, Richard Shoch and Stephen Bridy agreed to eliminate the office of jury commissioner held by Democrat George "Norge" Dorko and Republican Samuel Deitrick, a former county commissioner. But the abolition of the posts wasn't scheduled to take effect until Dec. 31, 2013, when the terms expire.
On March 14, the state Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional after finding that the authority given to county commissioners under Act 108 to abolish the positions was improperly added to an original bill that was designed only to give the county commissioners the power to hold private property and farm surplus auctions online.
Act 108, which was born as House Bill 1644, initially only addressed the online auctions. The provision for allowing abolition of jury commissioners was added to it when the measure went to the Senate. The revised bill was passed by the Senate in late 2011 and was promptly signed into law by Gov. Tom Corbett.
In July 2012, Commonwealth Court upheld the law's constitutionality despite opposition from its President Judge Dan Pellegrini.
The Supreme Court noted in its ruling that Pennsylvania's constitution has a "single subject" provision that bars totally unrelated issues from being adopted in the same bill.
Alisha Herb, director of the county board of elections office, said Wednesday the position will remain off the ballot as scheduled for the primary election, but may have to be added for the Nov. 5 general election if the Supreme Court ruling is upheld.
Since the law was overturned by what many consider to be a technicality, Herb said it's possible Act 108 of 2011 could be reinstated before the general election.
But if it isn't, Herb said the Democratic and Republican parties must file nomination certificates for one candidate in each party by Sept. 16 to be on the ballot for the Nov. 5 election. She said minor political candidates such as Independents or Green Party affiliates must file nomination papers by Aug. 1.
Herb said the Bureau of Commissions, Elections and Legislation in Harrisburg has advised election offices throughout the state on the proper procedures to follow in regard to the law pertaining to jury commissioners being overturned.
Critics claim jury commissioners, who must be from different political parties, are obsolete since jury pools are selected electronically for criminal and civil trials instead of by hand as was the case when jury commissioner posts were created more than a century ago.
The County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania has long advocated for abolition of the jury commissioners, while the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners has lobbied against it.
Clausi, who serves as board chairman, claims the county will save approximately $225,000 over the jury commissioners' four-year terms if they are eliminated. On Wednesday, he stated, "I think the jobs are a waste of money. They aren't needed anymore because the jury selection process is different today. We have to abide by the Supreme Court ruling for now, but I think it's a joke."
The primary role of a jury commissioner is to send out questionnaires to county residents to determine a jury pool for trials.
Dorko, 89, of Shamokin, and Deitrick, 59, of Sunbury, each receive an annual salary of $10,456 plus $6,164 in medical benefits. In addition to salaries and benefits, Sawicki said the county is responsible for retirement, Social Security and workers' compensation costs related to the jury commissioner office.
Dorko has served as jury commissioner since 1974, while Deitrick has been in the post since 2010.
When contacted Wednesday night, Deitrick said he would consider seeking another four-year term as jury commissioner if the Supreme Court ruling stands.
"I'd consider it for sure," he said. "I've enjoyed working with the court and Norge."
Dorko said, "I'm 110 percent in favor of the Supreme Court ruling. I believe the position of jury commissioner is definitely needed and I would consider running for it again because I enjoy it."