Commissioners ax jury commissioners’ post – again

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Two Republicans continue opposition to job; lone Democrat disagrees  

By Kathleen Brady Shea, Managing Editor, The Times

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Democratic Jury Commissioner Martha Smith listens as Commissioners’ Chairman Ryan Costello explains why he plans to vote to eliminate the elected position Smith has held for more than 13 years.

The roller-coaster ride for Chester County’s two jury commissioners continued Wednesday as two of the three county commissioners voted to abolish the positions for the second time in less than a year.

As expected, Republican Commissioners Terence Farrell and Ryan Costello said they had not changed their views and voted to discontinue the posts while Commissioner Kathi Cozzone, the lone Democrat, dissented.

Costello estimated that eliminating the elected positions – one official from each party who collectively oversee jury selection – would save the county about $75,000 a year. Both he and Farrell praised the work of Martha Smith, the Democratic jury commissioner, and Mimi Sack, the GOP jury commissioner, but said that their duties could be easily subsumed by court administration.

Farrell said he was called for jury duty several weeks ago and believes that “court administration, in conjunction with the judges,” who give opening remarks on the importance of jury duty, will be able to handle the process, much of which is computer-generated.

Costello added that the integrity of the system “will in no way be diminished.” He pointed out that other counties have implemented the same procedure so that “there is nothing groundbreaking about the way in which we would effectuate that service.”

Cozzone disagreed. “While I understand that there is technology that helps in the jury selection process, I still believe that the jury dismissal process can be subjective,” she said. “I think the appropriate folks to do that are elected and accountable to the public.”

Before the vote, Smith, who has served as jury commissioner for more than 13 years, pointed out that the commissioners’ authority to abolish the positions was still subject to a legal challenge. She asked the commissioners “to wait until we have our hearing,” a request that was not heeded.

The vote to eliminate the positions followed legislation signed by Gov. Corbett last month that gives counties such authority – about two months after the state Supreme Court struck down a similar measure.

The high court ruled that the 2011 law, which empowered counties to end the post, violated the single-subject rule of the state’s Constitution because it was “attached” to a bill that had nothing to do with jury commissioners. A legal challenge by the Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners led  to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn it. By then, the majority of the state’s 67 counties had already abolished the office, including Chester County.

The recent legislation, known as Act 4 and signed by Gov., Corbett on May 6, was crafted as a stand-alone law; however, it is being appealed by the jury commissioners’ association.

After the meeting, the commissioners said the change would take effect at the end of the year.

 

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