By Peter Becker
MILFORD - Following a newly enacted Pennsylvania law, the Pike County Commissioners have abolished the historic, elected positions of Jury Commissioner.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania enacted Act 4 of 2013 authorizing county boards of commissioners to eliminate the office of Jury Commissioners. Pike County Commissioners were notified by letter from the President Judge in Pike County (60th Judicial District of Pennsylvania) dated May 13, 2013 regarding the jury selection process in Pike and the elimination of the Jury Commissioners.
The County Commissioners concluded that the lists of potential jurors are a representative cross section of the community and therefore complies with the provisions of Act 4 of 2013.
Elimination of this elected post becomes effective with the completion of the current terms of office of the Pike County Jury Commissioners.
Loss of oversight?
Currently those posts are held by Marjorie Wassmer of Lackawaxen Township, a Republican, and Getrude Smith, a Democrat from Matamoras. They were scheduled to be up for re-election this year.
Wassmer was adamantly against the elimination of the post, and says she feels it's really about saving money.
The first-term Jury Commissioner said that she is concerned by eliminating the post, the County is giving up an independent check and balance over the jury selection process.
Using herself as an example, Wassmer said that if she were heading for a jury trial, she would feel a lot better knowing that the jury wasn't selected by staff from the Judge's Chambers. Instead, she noted, the Jury Commissioners are separate from the court system and are from differing parties. "We watch each other," she said. While adding she wasn't saying this would happen, without independent oversight there is always the potential for abuse. "The computer spits out the names, but a lot can happen afterwards," she warned.
"They really don't want it," Wassmer commented. "It's all about the money." The part-time Jury Commissioners in Pike County make a total of $8,000 a year (4,000 each). She said it wasn't a lot compared to other counties.
Smith is completing her third, four-year term as Jury Commissioner. She when she started they did not use a computer to pick the names. She and the other Commissioner drew them by hand. She said it is an interesting job and easier today. She and Wassner oversee the computerized list of potential jurors and mailing of the summons letters. They do this every month.
"It's to be," she said of the move to abolish the post. "I first I didn't understand how they would draw a jury (without the jury commissioners' oversight)."
Wassmer said that they were first notified by the Pike County Commissioners in February 2012 that they were abolishing the post. Then it went to appeal, statewide.
The Jury Commissioners had an alternate plan that was approved by the County, to be reinstated on the ballot by submitting petitions rather than hold a special election for them, had the state law been overturned.
Commissioner Chairman Richard Caridi said that the role of Jury Commissioner had been viewed as archaic. So much is handled electronically today, and done by court staff.
The state association of County Commissioners have long advocated to abolish the role of the Jury Commissioner, saying it is obsolete. Jury Commissioners were responsible for the selection of jury pools for criminal and civil trials. The posts were created more than 100 years ago. Most counties had two jury commissioners, who had to be from different political parties.
In April, Pennsylvania state lawmakers moved quickly to reverse a recent court decision that threw out a law letting counties eliminate jury commissioners, the Associated Press reported. The state House voted 156 to 39 to send a bill to Gov. Tom Corbett that reinstated counties' power to do away with the positions.
The Supreme Court in March invalidated the 2011 law, saying it violated the state constitution's requirement that bills be confined to a single subject. Forty-two counties had eliminated their jury commissioners under the law.
A state judge recently ruled jury commissioner races won't be on the primary ballot, leaving parties to pick nominees.
The Wayne County Commissioners chose to retain their Jury Commissioner elected post. Brian Smith, Chairman of the Wayne County Board of County Commissioners, said that they decided that there was still value in the work of the two part-time Jury Commissioners, and without them they would need to hire someone full-time to take on the jury selection tasks.
• Elizabeth De Blon was approved as a Caseworker for Children & Youth Services, effective May 20. This is a replacement position.
• A proclamation was issued congratulating the Wayne Chapter Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the DAR.
• A commercial service proposal was approved between Blue Cable TV and the County of Pike for the Correctional Facility. Paid from inmate funds, the service is for television service in the day rooms.
• Contracts were executed for the following work for the Interim County Facility Project: LH Reed- Plumbing; DJ Heating & Air Conditioning- Mechanical and Port Jervis Electric- Electric.
Pike County Commissioners meet on the first and third Wednesday at 9 a.m. at the Administration Building on Broad Street in Milford.