HARRISBURG – Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law Monday a bill authored by state Sen. Lloyd K. Smucker (R-13) that will once again give county commissioners across the Commonwealth the option of eliminating jury commissioner row officer positions.
Senate Bill 808 moved rapidly through the Legislature before arriving on the Governor’s desk last week. Within a week of one another, the state Senate and the state House voted to approve the measure.
“In a tough economy like ours, where tight budgets persist all across the Commonwealth, state lawmakers must do what we can to help local governments keep costs down,” Smucker said. “Giving counties the option to save money by eliminating out-dated row officer positions illustrates one way we can work toward making government more efficient.”
The new law is virtually identical to one authored by Smucker last session and approved by the Legislature as part of a package of county reforms that eventually became Act 108 of 2011. Just as it did then, the new law applies to all counties of the third through eighth classes and allows local governments to abolish jury commissioner positions by a majority vote. The previous law found favor with county commissioners; 42 of the Commonwealth’s 60 eligible counties chose to eliminate the positions at the conclusion of the office’s term on December 31, 2013.
Redrafting the legislation became necessary after a March 14, 2013 ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which struck down Act 108 because of its composition. Smucker’s bill passed as a rider to legislation dealing with how counties may sell farm and personal property. Passed together, the Court ruled the two bills violated the Commonwealth’s “single subject rule,” which requires legislative packages to adhere to the same general subject.
The ruling was surprising, Smucker said.
“Both our legal folks and the County Commissioners Association thought this package was well within the bounds of the law, because both issues pertained to the county code and the duties of a county commissioner,” he said. “The court differentiated between the legislative and executive functions of the commissioners and concluded it violated the single subject rule.”
Bills typically do not move through the Legislature this quickly, Senator Smucker said, but this case proved exceptional for one very important reason: the ruling threw into question how the jury commissioner position would be handled in this year’s election cycle.
“The court’s decision significantly impacted the electoral process, so it was important to move this bill and act on it swiftly,” Smucker said.
The construction and passage of the new law should eliminate the need for any additional court rulings, he said.
“It is important to remember that the Supreme Court didn’t strike down the original measure on its merit,” Smucker said. “Legal experts and county solicitors across Pennsylvania agreed that on its merit, the law was solid. This law should validate those opinions and withstand any challenge.”
Jury commissioner positions originated more than a century ago as a way to help court administrators prepare lists of prospective jurors for criminal and civil trials. Today, computers compile these lists more quickly using the state’s driver license database, prompting court officials and county commissioners across the Commonwealth to call for the elimination of the post.