Bill would allow abolition of jury commissioner post
February 19. 2013 5:22AM
A bill under consideration in the state Senate would allow dozens of counties, including Luzerne, to eliminate the position of jury commissioner by a simple majority vote of county commissioners.
Luzerne County has two jury commissioners, one elected by Republicans and one by Democrats. On Monday, Republican Jury Commissioner Frank Semanski was sworn in to another four-year term. No Democrat took the oath because the man the party members elected to serve, Jerry Bonner, pleaded guilty in federal court last month to passing a bribe and could get probation when he’s sentenced. Voters reelected Bonner while he was under federal indictment for the charges in November.
Neither Semanski nor Bonner faced a challenger in the primary or general elections.
The post, which pays $10,112 per year in addition to health care coverage, was created more than 125 years ago to help prepare potential juror lists for criminal and civil trials. But computers now allow juror lists to be compiled in a snap from the driver’s license database. Luzerne County’s jury commissioners are required to attend only one meeting per year, in which the court discusses authorization to request a fresh list of potential juror names from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, court officials say.
“As a result of new technology, the job of jury commissioner has become obsolete in many of our counties. During tough economic times, local governments could save tax dollars by eliminating this outdated position. I am confident that this legislation would not impact the integrity of the jury selection process in the counties,” Sen. Tommy Tomlinson, R-Bucks County, said in a release. Tomlinson sponsored a companion bill that would eliminate the position in second-class counties.
Luzerne is a third-class county and would be able to eliminate the position if a bill sponsored by Sen. Lloyd Smucker, R-Lancaster County, is approved. Smucker’s bill includes counties of the third through eighth class.
County Commissioner Stephen Urban said he supports the measure, noting that unless the county votes for a home rule charter, the only way to eliminate the position he calls “outdated” would be through an act of the legislature like this bill.
“Right now there’s nothing we could do,” he said, referring to the board of commissioners. He said the positions cost the county about $45,000 a year when considering salary, benefits and retirement contributions.
Urban said some smaller counties still have uses for jury commissioners, or at least use them in a way that justifies their salary.
“In this county, it seems they’re there just to get a check, benefits and retirement benefits,” Urban said.
Lackawanna County abolished jury commissioners and assigned the duties to its court administrator when the county switched to home rule in the early 1970s. Luzerne County’s 2003 proposed home rule charter, which was defeated by voters, would have eliminated the positions.
Matt Maniskes, executive director of the Senate’s Local Government Committee, said the bill was spurred by calls from counties that opposed the position and could cite financial savings if it were eliminated.
State Sen. Bob Mellow, D-Peckville, said he supports the measure.
“Regarding Senate Bill 1117, I support giving individual counties the flexibility to determine whether or not the office of jury commissioner continues to suit the county’s needs. It provides the autonomy to pursue cost-saving measures for county taxpayers and greater efficiency in county offices,” he said.
David Atkinson, a legislative aide with Smucker, said he believes the issue is “one that comes with a lot of support and not much in the way of apparent opposition. I think the odds are probably pretty good we have a bill that gets to the governor’s desk this session.”