2013-03-21 / Local & State

Jury Commissioner Law Ruled Unconstitutional

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court last Thursday unanimously ruled that the state law that allowed county commissioners to abolish the office of jury commissioner was unconstitutional.

“The decisive ruling, all six Supreme Court justices agreed, vindicates the position of the Pennsylvania Association of Jury Commissioners,” said Larry Thompson, president of the association. “My organization’s stance from the beginning was that the misguided law was clearly unconstitutional. The legislation attacked the integrity of our justice system to just save a few dollars. I’m pleased that the Supreme Court has righted this injustice.”

The Supreme Court’s decision reverses a 4-3 decision last year by the Commonwealth Court that upheld the law. “After careful consideration, we now reverse the Commonwealth Court in regard to the single subject challenge and, therefore, respectfully declare Act 108 to be unconstitutional,” wrote Supreme Court Justice Max Baer.

The Supreme Court agreed with a dissenting opinion written by the Commonwealth Court. “We agree with President Judge Pellegrini (Commonwealth Court) that auctioning private property and farm surplus, and eliminating an elected public office are ‘so far apart that there is no common focus.’”

In conclusion the Supreme Court ruled, “We find Act 108 clearly, palpably, and plainly violates the single subject rule of Article III, Section 3 of the Pennsylvania Constitution. The order of the Commonwealth Court is therefore reversed.”

Jury commissioners attorney Sam Stretton said, “This is a major victory for the legal system and for the citizens of the commonwealth. The Supreme Court’s ruling reinforces the sound reasoning that allows only one subject be included in any piece of legislation. Logrolling of separate subjects in one legislative bill is forbidden. Act 108 clearly violated that provision.”

The original petition to the Supreme Court by the jury commissioners asked the justices, “Does (the law) violate the single subject requirement of the Pennsylvania Constitution since it contains multiple unrelated subjects including the imposition of excise taxes, rental of motor vehicles by counties, abolishing the Office of Jury Commissioner and sale of personal property and surplus farm products?”

Thompson said the counties that prematurely acted to abolish the jury commissioners’ post will cost taxpayers money as now the office will have to be placed back on the ballot. Thompson traveled across the state asking commissioners to wait until the Supreme Court took action before taking steps to abolish the elected office. “Those commissioners will now have to answer to their voters for wasting money,” Thompson said.

Stretton, at the direction of the Pennsylvania Association of Jury Commissioners, filed a petition with Commonwealth Court on Friday to have the jury commissioners’ office listed on this year’s primary ballot. Since the designated legal period to file nominating petitions has passed, Stretton asked the Commonwealth Court to set another two-week period where nominating petition signatures can be gathered.

The jury commissioners contend the now unconstitutional law was legally unsound for other reasons, including violation of the separation of powers as the law allowed the commissioners to act in the realm of the judiciary. The Supreme Court didn’t rule on that allegation since the justices already had ruled the law unconstitutional on the single subject issue.

“The issue should not be a matter of dollars and cents,” Thompson added. “Some believed doing away with our office, an agency that upholds the integrity of the jury system, might save them money. The real issue is the Constitution. Also, such action would have removed the watchdogs elected by the people to oversee the fairness of the selection process of jurors. The protected right of a person to a fair and impartial jury would have been compromised.”

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