Meadville Tribune

Local News

April 11, 2013

County jury commissioners won't lose jobs

MEADVILLE — Crawford County Jury Commissioners David Kennedy and Betty Williams were told in late December that their jobs were being eliminated and, at the end of this year, they would be out of work.

That changed recently thanks to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that invalidated a law that allowed counties to eliminate the positions. In Crawford County, the Board of Commissioners voted late last year to eliminate the jobs and save about $20,000 a year. The work done by the commissioners — developing and maintaining jury lists and communicating with potential jurors — was to be absorbed by the office of the court administrator.

However, the state Supreme Court ruled that the legislation allowing the positions to be eliminated was unconstitutional because of the “single subject” rule. The state constitution says that legislation passed by the state must address one subject only. The bill giving counties the option to eliminate the positions was tacked onto a bill allowing counties to auction property online. Approximately 40 counties eliminated the jury commissioner positions.

The Jury Commissioner Association of Pennsylvania challenged that law and won. In its 6-0 decision, the court agreed with the association.

Now, the 40 counties that had voted to eliminate the positions must all decide how they are going to reinstate them.

Since the positions are elected by voters, it’s not simply a matter of putting the jobs back on the books. The current terms expire at the end of December. That means for Kennedy and Williams to serve in 2014, they have to be re-elected this year. Until the positions were eliminated, they would have circulated petitions to have their names on the ballot. The deadline to file those petitions was March 12. The court ruling didn’t come until two days later, meaning it was too late to be included on the ballot.

So how do Kennedy and Williams get their jobs back in 2014? There are several options.

The first — being sought by the jury commissioner association — would be to allow the county to have a special two-week period to allow candidates to circulate petitions to be included on the ballot. A Commonwealth Court judge heard arguments about the case recently, promising a quick ruling.

The second option would be to allow the respective political parties to choose their nominee for the November election, a move Crawford County Republican Party Chairman Jody Leech supports, but Democrat Party Chairman Diane Adsit doesn’t. This process is normally used when there is a vacancy after the primary election.

A third option being discussed is allowing candidates to circulate petitions between the primary election and the November election, a move which would have to be approved by the state court as well.

A fourth option would be to have a court appointment at the expiration of the respective terms, which end in December.

One thing is certain. Nobody at this point knows what’s going to happen.

“The court has to make the decision how we are to handle it,” Crawford County Board of Commissioners Chairman Francis Weiderspahn said. “We will wait and see how it ends up.” At the same time, he said “CCAP (County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania) is still fighting it. We are sitting back and waiting to see what happens.”

Kennedy, a Republican, and Williams, a Democrat, were both pleased about the court ruling.

“I think the commissioners acted too fast (last year),” Williams said. “They did not wait until the decision was made” — the court case was pending. If permitted, she will circulate petitions.

“I am pleased for the people of Crawford County as they will continue to have elected and accountable persons fulfilling the court orders (to summon prospective jurors) and interact with citizens in a personal manner,” said Kennedy, adding he would be pleased to continue as jury commissioner. He said he will follow whatever instructions he receives from the court or whoever gives the instructions for the candidates. “I have no idea what the process will be. I will follow the instructions from the Commonwealth Court.”

The two jury commissioners must be of different political parties to ensure both parties are represented.

In expressing her support for the political parties to nominate candidates, Leech said, “I was hoping we would be able to do that. I believe Mr. Kennedy and Betty Williams deserve to have their jobs back.”

She added she did not like or believe that commissioners should be able to take away the positions. She said the Republicans “would be nominating Dave (Kennedy).” In addition to the fact he is the incumbent, she said nobody else has indicated any interest in seeking election to the position. She doesn’t like the idea of extending the period for circulating petitions, noting the election is May 21 and that doesn’t give candidates much time.

Her counterpart, Adsit, said she has not read the whole court ruling yet and the party itself had not discussed any options. An attorney, Adsit, said there are many options to consider and noted she, too, would have to wait for the Commonwealth Court ruling.

She doesn’t support the political party making the choice. Even though she had heard of nobody interested in seeking the nomination other than Williams, Adsit said, “I would hope all persons interested would be able to petition to get on the ballot in the fall.” She said all interested candidates should be given the opportunity, adding, “My least favorite (option) would be to have the party make the decision. That’s not the Democratic process.”

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