Jury commissioners’ office in legal limbo for 2014

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This year is one of those “off, off-year elections,” because after the hoopla of the presidential election year, the contests are purely local.


In Washington County, judicial hopefuls will be getting the lion’s share of attention, but even in this off-year election, there’s an unusual wrinkle in a part-time row office.


Washington County Democratic Jury Commissioner Judith Fisher and her Republican counterpart, Richard Zimmerman, remain in office until Jan. 6, 2014, and 2013 is the year they, and potential opponents, would be running for the office.


But nearly a year ago, the Washington County commissioners voted to abolish the office of jury commissioner in accordance with legislation signed into law in December 2011 by Gov. Tom Corbett, which gave smaller counties an option that larger counties had for some time.


Greene County commissioners followed suit late last year.


The constitutionality of this law is being challenged before the state Supreme Court, and unless the court rules before various election deadlines, there’s nothing to keep candidates from seeking a place on the ballot in the May primary.


“If no decision is forthcoming before the dates to circulate and file, then the status quo will be maintained,” said Washington County Elections Director Larry Spahr.


Feb. 19 is the first day to circulate and file nominating petitions. The filing deadline is March 12, and the primary will be held May 21. The general election is Nov. 5. “Larry’s in charge of elections,” Zimmerman said after the county’s annual salary board meeting earlier this month. “If he says we can file, I’m going to file. Since the commissioners did away with our job last year, they had to do it before the 31st of December because they can’t tamper with elected officials’ running years.”


Fisher, reached while she was trying to recover from a bout of influenza, said Thursday, “The only one who can abolish my job is my constituents. My hands are tied, but I am going to run. Legally, the county commissioners cannot abolish the job of someone elected by the people.”


Rosalind Laur, Greene County’s Republican Jury Commissioner since 1984, said the appellate court’s decision will not affect her. “I decided this would be my last term anyway, so no, I will not be filing any nominating papers.”


She was a Republican committeewoman for 18 years, representing Aleppo Township. Within the Republican Party, whe has been vice chairwoman and secretary.


Greene County’s other jury commissioner, Democrat Lynn Leathers, who was elected in 2009, could not be reached for comment Thursday.


Larry Thompson, president of the Jury Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, urged counties to preserve the office and noted his county, Butler, agrees with him.


In an email sent in mid-December, Thompson wrote, “We are waiting for the (Supreme) Court to schedule a hearing date.”


Zimmerman’s is among the names on the caption of the court case.


“You know, we only lost that by one vote,” Zimmerman said of the jury commission case in Commonwealth Court, where the decision in July upheld the law by a vote of 4-3.


The court rejected the jury commissioners’ arguments that the county commissioners voting to abolish the office was overstepping the separation of powers because the jury commissioners are part of the judiciary. Neither did they strike down the law because the Legislature bundled the abolition of the office with other bills.


Thompson urged all members of the jury commissioner association to be prepared to run in the 2013 primary election.


The office of jury commissioner was created in Pennsylvania in 1868, but the county commissioners maintain that computer software can do their job, saving taxpayers their part-time salaries and benefits.


Jury commissioner salaries in 2013 are $17,103, plus benefits. The commissioners have estimated that abolishing the positions will save county taxpayers $80,000 per year.


Budgeted for the Washington County jury commissioners office this year is $139,912.


Among the cost of running the jury commissioner office are dues paid to their association, annual conferences and meetings and travel.


Other county offices that will be on the ballot this year are controller, sheriff and recorder of deeds.


Washington County incumbent Democrats Michael Namie, Sam Romano and Debbie Bardella said they plan to seek additional terms in their respective offices.


In the judges’ race, Blane Black, Valarie Costanzo, Mike Lucas and Peter Marcoline have announced candidacies.


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