Determining that jury commissioner offices are county and not judicial positions was the key factor in the state Supreme Court’s determination that the law allowing counties to abolish jury commissioner offices is constitutional.

Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Act 4 of 2013, which allows most Pennsylvania counties to abolish the office of jury commissioner, is constitutional and does not violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. On Friday, the court issued its opinion explaining the reasoning behind the decision.

In his first opinion for the Supreme Court, Justice Correale F. Stevens examined the portion of the Judicial Code outlining the judicial boards and commissions and found that it did not indicate that the commissioners are part of the judiciary.

“While we agree with [the jury commissioners] that ‘juries play a vital part in the judicial system,’ we simply disagree that the office of jury commissioner is a ‘judicial office’ or that Act 4 of 2013 permits the improper ‘abolishment of what is a purely judicial office,’” he said. “Instead, we find the two elected jury commissioners meet the Judicial Code’s definition of ‘county staff.’”

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille and Justices J. Michael Eakin, Thomas G. Saylor, Max Baer and Seamus P. McCaffery joined the majority opinion.

Justice Debra McCloskey Todd, however, offered a strongly-worded dissenting opinion, in which she warned that abolishing the jury commissioners could have a severe effect on the judicial process.

“I consider Act 4 to deleteriously affect the administration of our unified judicial system by substituting the current uniform statutory framework for selecting jurors with a vast and possibly conflicting patchwork of local, ad hoc standards, which may ultimately be as varied as the number of counties in our commonwealth,” she said. “The impact such a balkanization of the jury selection process would have on the conduct of civil and criminal trials, and on judicial administration, should be a matter of profound concern to our court.”

After the Supreme Court overturned a similar law that was signed in 2011 because it violated the single-subject rule, Governor Tom Corbett in May signed Act 4 of 2013. The law allows the counties to abolish the jury commissioner offices, which are composed of two elected jury commissioners and the president judge in the district.

The Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners’ argument that the statute was an unconstitutional delegation of legislative powers and violated Pennsylvania’s constitutionally mandated unified judicial system and separation of powers doctrine was unsuccessful before the Commonwealth Court.
The association made similar arguments before the Supreme Court in September, and further contended that the jury commissioner office had evolved into a key part of the judiciary and eliminating the offices would create confusion across the state. However, the arguments were once again unsuccessful.

Stevens contended that the elected jury commissioners fall under the Judicial Code’s definition of “county staff,” noting that the definition includes “system and related personnel elected by the electorate of a county or subject to appointment and removal of officers, other than judicial officers, so elected.”

He further noted that the County Code specifically lists jury commissioners as officials who can organize into a state association.

“Having concluded the two elected jury commissioners are not ‘judicial officers,’ but rather statutorily-created ‘county staff,’ we find Act 4 of 2013, through which the legislature permits the abolishment of the two elected jury commissioners, does not violate the separation of powers doctrine,” he said.

Stevens further opined that the law provides adequate safeguards to protect the jury system after a commissioner office is abolished.

“Appellants assert that the office of jury commissioner has ‘evolved’ into a judicial office carrying out ‘key’ roles in our court system,” he said. “However, the fact the elected jury commissioners cooperate, by statute, with the president judge (or another county judge temporarily) does not convert the nature of the offices. Our organic law does not evolve in such a fashion.”

However, Todd contended that, because the commissioners prepare master lists of prospective jurors, select the names from the list, mail juror qualification forms, determine potential juror qualifications, and also have the authority to apply court orders, the offices are essential to the courts, and, therefore, the law does violate the constitution.

It “constitutes an impermissible delegation of legislative power to counties regarding the conduct of a vital part of the operation of our unified judicial system — the jury selection process,” she said. “Act 4 is constitutionally infirm because itsub silentio permits counties, through the abolition of the office of jury commissioner, to effectively supersede the comprehensive provisions of the Judicial Code which currently govern the jury selection process, while providing no guiding standards to those counties on how they are to carry out the jury selection process after abolition.”

She also argued that, since the Judicial Code says that the jury commission must have a “majority of its members” to act, there must be a minimum quorum. “Consequently, when a county officially abolishes the office of jury commissioner it is also, in actual effect, eviscerating the jury selection commission as a functional body and depriving it of continuing authority to take any action,” she said.

Samuel C. Stretton, who represented the jury commissioners and is a columnist for Legal sibling publication PennsylvaniaLaw Weekly, said he agreed with Todd’s dissent and was disappointed with the majority opinion.

“It ignores the obvious that there is no unified judicial system in Pennsylvania beginning this January,” he said. “We’ll just wait and see what they come up with for the jury selection process.”

John Bartley Delone of the state Office of Attorney General did not return a call for comment.

Max Mitchell can be contacted at 215-557-2354 or mmitchell@alm.com. Follow him on Twitter @MMitchellTLI. •

(Copies of the 44-page opinion in Pennsylvania State Association of Jury Commissioners v. Commonwealth, PICS No. 13-3008, are available from The Legal Intelligencer. Please call the Pennsylvania Instant Case Service at 800-276-PICS to order or for information.) •