Nearly six months after a law allowing counties to abolish the office of jury commissioner went into effect, concerns that the law could cause confusion and lead to a variety of different jury management systems across the state appear to have been partially correct.
President judges and court administrators who spoke with the Law Weekly outlined several different systems for managing and selecting juries; however, all of the court officials reported that the transitions after the jury commissioner offices were abolished have been smooth and there have been no complaints from attorneys so far.
In September 2013, the state Supreme Court ruled that Act 4 of 2013, which allowed most Pennsylvania counties to abolish the office of jury commissioner, did not violate the Pennsylvania Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. Since then, the majority of court officials who spoke with the Law Weekly reported that the jury commissioner offices in their counties had been abolished.
In Bucks County, which is a second-class county, the duties of the former jury commissioners have been taken over by a jury manager position in the court administrator’s office. The commissioners had coordinated the list of potential jurors, gathered the jurors’ information, and issued notices regarding excuses and deferments from jury duty.
According to Bucks County court administrator Douglas R. Praul, the jury manager in his department has taken over the duties without a problem. Praul said the county started preparing for the loss of the commissioners before the Supreme Court’s decision last year.
“We’d seen the handwriting on the wall,” Praul said. “We had pretty much weaned ourselves off of using jury commissioners for our daily needs some time ago, and there hasn’t been much of a change since they left,”
Praul said the largest impact has been on the “ceremonial functions” that the commissioners performed, such as attending public meetings and representing the administration regarding jury services.
“They provided a public face for the jury office,” he said. “We lost that, but the day-to-day, the jury management, that’s under the court administration.”
Rolling the duties of the former jury commissioners into the administrative office was the most common change implemented, according to the court officials who spoke with the Law Weekly.
However, in Columbia County, a part-time jury clerk has been hired to specifically handle the former jury commissioners’ duties.
Columbia County court administrator Tami B. Kline said the part-time clerk handles summoning jurors, sending notices and preparing the list of jurors. When determinations about whether to grant disqualifications or excuses fall outside the normal criteria for such decisions, court administration officers step in to provide “another set of eyes,” Kline said.
“Certain criteria we set up a long time ago, so we have a baseline to work from,” Kline said. “So far, it’s been very smooth.”
According to Kline, attorneys in Columbia County, which is a sixth-class county, likely do not know that the process has changed.
“What they see, the paperwork, is all the same,” Kline said. “They wouldn’t notice a difference. We give them a list and a copy of their questionnaires.”
When the Supreme Court determined that the positions could be abolished, Justice Correale F. Stevens, who wrote the majority opinion, determined that the commissioners were not part of the judiciary, and therefore could be abolished; however, in her dissent, Justice Debra M. Todd 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,” Todd 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 law was approved by the court, the Centre County commissioners passed a proclamation keeping the jury commissioner office intact, court officials said.
“We always used them a little bit more than what other counties do,” court administrator Maxine Ishler said.
According to Ishler, the commissioners in Centre County, which is a fourth-class county, primarily oversee the random jury selection, print and fold notices, stuff envelopes, monitor the return of questionnaires, record requests for excuses or deferments, track down new addresses or potential jurors and document attendance.
Ishler said the court administrator’s office advised county officials that the duties could be taken over by her office, and that abolishing the office would save about $40,000.
“We still make them work since we have them,” Ishler said.
Some counties, including Berks County and Allegheny County, which has a home rule charter, had eliminated the jury commissioner position years before the Supreme Court’s decision came down. According to Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, after the commissioners were abolished in 2005, the jury management office within the court administration office took over the duties of summoning juries. The jury management office, which organized juries for more than 300 civil and criminal cases in 2013, has 10 employees, Manning said.
“It’s been extremely effective and cost-saving,” Manning said.
According to Monroe County Court of Common Pleas Judge James DeVore, after his county lost its commissioners in January, the duties of the former jury commissioners were also rolled into the jury management department, which is a subsection of the court administration office.
Christina Zook, who is the court administrator for the 41st Judicial District, covering Perry and Juniata counties, said the most difficult part of the process was waiting to see whether or not the act would be implemented.
“The biggest problem I found was the uncertainty in the beginning,” she said. “It held up the planning process on my end because everything was up in the air.”
After the law was upheld, the court system hired one part-time jury manager to handle the initial processing of the potential jurors in both counties, and the administration office took over the in-court selection process, Zook said.
According to Zook, the court in sixth-class Perry County historically relied more on jury commissioners, while in Juniata County, which is a seventh-class county, the bulk of the jury processing had been done by the clerk of courts. Having a part-time jury manager has taken some of the pressure off the Juniata system, Zook said.
“It honestly was a very smooth transition,” Zook said.
In third-class Chester County, the court administration has been handling the jury management process since January, Chester County Court of Common Pleas President Judge James P. MacElree II said. The bulk of the work is processing requests for excuses or deferments, MacElree said, and the only real difference has been “the elimination of the title heads.”
“There really isn’t that much of a burden, and we save a few-thousand tax dollars,” MacElree said. “Everything’s running smoothly and on track.”