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December 14, 2012

County abolishes jury commissioner posts

NEW CASTLE — The Lawrence County commissioners have abolished the county’s two elected jury commissioner positions.

They decided unanimously this week to eliminate the positions under Act 108, a state law enacted a year ago to allow counties of third through eighth classes to eliminate the posts.

Lawrence is a sixth-class county.

Commissioner chairman Dan Vogler explained Thursday the commissioners had met with court administrator Michael Occhibone and President Judge Dominick Motto about the matter before deciding.

The state jury commissioners association had appealed the law to the state commonwealth court, which upheld it. However, the association then appealed the matter to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, which has indicated it will hear the case. Nothing is scheduled yet.

Vogler stressed the positions are being eliminated for budgetary reasons, and the county’s two elected jury commissioner positions will terminate at the end of 2013.

“It’s a cost-savings,” he said.

The move will save the county at least $55,000 annually. Each position is paid $12,000 a year plus benefits, which total about $31,000.

Vogler pointed out the vote had to be this month, because it cannot be done the year the positions are on the ballot. Otherwise, they would have to wait another four years until they are up for election.

Vogler said Motto and Occhibone assured the commissioners they can put procedures into place that would ensure jury lists represent cross sections of the community, which is required under the new law.

“They felt confident that would be the case,” Vogler said.

Attempts to reach Motto for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.

He said the commissioners also had a private discussion with jury commissioners Amy Shea and Helen Jackson before considering the matter for a vote, and they were aware of the law.

“We indicated we would be taking the action,” Vogler said, adding the two jury commissioners made the commissioners aware of the pending appeal.

The commissioners indicated that if the state Supreme Court would overturn the law, they would rescind their decision, Vogler said.

He noted that 29 of the 60 Pennsylvania counties eligible to abolish the positions have done so, according to information from the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and 10 have indicated they plan to vote on the issue this year, he said. Neighboring Butler and Mercer counties are among those that have decided against abolishing the positions.

Vogler noted Motto and his staff will determine how they will handle the process of jury selection.

Occhibone said that when he met with the commissioners, they were gathering information from other counties about how they were addressing the law.

Jackson said Thursday she hadn’t officially heard the commissioners had voted.

Acknowledging the appeal before the state Supreme Court, she said that should the act be overturned, the positions will be returned in the counties that have abolished them.

“It’s a wait and see,” Jackson said, adding, “Things could still change.”

She said she is not faulting the commissioners for their decision.

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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