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September 18, 2013

Despite ruling, county keeps jury commissioners

MEADVILLE — Pennsylvania highest court is upholding a law that permits counties to do away with the job of jury commissioner, but Crawford County will keep its two part-time positions for now.

At their Sept. 5 meeting, county commissioners announced the elected positions will appear on the ballot for a four-year term. Chairman Francis Weiderspahn Jr. said county commissioners would not take another vote to eliminate the jury positions as they did back in late December 2012 because of legal challenges across the state and the issue still being unsettled. Commissioners expressed concern about the possibility of having to hold a special election if they eliminated the posts, but the courts ruled they must be on the ballot.

However, on Tuesday, the state’s Supreme Court issued a brief order rejecting an attempt by Pennsylvania’s jury commissioners and their state association to overturn the law signed by Gov. Tom Corbett in May.

The jury commissioners develop and maintain jury lists for the county court system and communicate with potential jurors. When Crawford County commissioners eliminated the posts, the jury commissioners’ work was to be absorbed by the office of the court administrator.

In Crawford County, the jury commissioners — one from each of the two major political parties — are elected to four-year terms and are part-time positions with a salary of $10,598 each for 2013.

Earlier this year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court struck down a previous version of the jury commissioner elimination law. The new ruling concerns a law passed by the Legislature to address problems with the previous version, under which 42 counties did away with the job. A single justice, Debra Todd, dissented from the majority decision. The Supreme Court plans to issue full opinions later.

On Wednesday, Weiderspahn said the jury commissioner positions would remain on the November ballot in the county since the deadline for ballot changes had passed on Monday, the day before the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Weiderspahn said he was in favor of having the positions on the November ballot and have the jury commissioners serve their four-year terms.

“I’m of the opinion that some time in the next four years, once their terms start, this board or the next should decide whether to do away with those (jury commissioner) positions or just leave it alone,” Weiderspahn said.

Under Pennsylvania law, county commissioners can’t vote to eliminate an elected position in the same year it is up for election.

Allen said he’s not changed his stance on the jury commissioner posts, saying he would like to see the positions eliminated.

“It would save the county money,” Allen said.

Lynch said he, too, wanted action to be taken now that the matter had been decided by the Supreme Court.

“This is something this (county commissioners’) board or the next needs to act on and hopefully sooner than later,” Lynch said.

Names for jury commissioner submitted by the county’s Republican and Democratic parties to appear on the November ballot in Crawford County are David Kennedy for the Republicans, a current incumbent, and Samantha Staab for the Democrats.

Kennedy said he was pleased to continue to be able to serve county residents called for jury service.

“It’s necessary because of the human element involved,” Kennedy said. “Many have concerns and questions about their service.”

Betty Lou Williams, the current incumbent Democratic jury commissioner, said she thought it was wrong to eliminate the jury commissioner posts.

“It needs to be non-partisan,” Williams said. “If you hire someone to do it, they may just pick one political party. It needs to be impartial.”

Williams, who didn’t win the nomination of her party following a recent meeting of county Democratic committee members, wouldn’t comment on whether she would mount a write-in campaign against Staab in November.

Staab, the treasurer of the Crawford County Democratic Committee, said she credits county commissioners for keeping the jury commissioners post.

“It’s an important position so jury selection is done accurately and fairly,” Staab said. “I’ll be willing to serve however long the county commissioners want to keep it. Along with Mr. Kennedy, I’m here to serve the residents.”

The general election is scheduled for Nov. 5.

Keith Gushard can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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