Crime, Judicial Divas, Politics, State Judges, State Judges Are Clowns

Judge of the Day: From the Bench to the Big House?

Justice Joan Orie Melvin

Justice Joan Orie Melvin is a member of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. As touted on the court’s website, it is “the highest court in the Commonwealth and the oldest appellate court in the nation.”

Yesterday the court acquired a more dubious distinction: it’s the latest state supreme court to see one of its members convicted of a serious felony. And yes, we mean “latest,” not “only” or “first.” Just last month, for example, former Michigan Supreme Court Justice Diane Hathaway pleaded guilty to federal bank fraud. Here in New York, Chief Judge Sol Wachtler of the Court of Appeals, our state’s highest court, served a prison sentence back in the early 1990s.

(Don’t say I didn’t warn you. Back in 2004, I opined that “state court judges are icky.” Article III all the way, baby.)

Back to Justice Orie Melvin of Pennsylvania. What could send Her Honor from the high court to the big house?

Here’s a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

A jury found suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin guilty on all but one count [yesterday]. Her sister, Janine Orie, was found guilty on all but one count.

The sisters were charged with misapplication of government funds, theft of services and conspiracy for using the justice’s former Superior Court staff and the legislative staff of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to run campaigns for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009.

Joan, Janine, and Jane — no good can come from giving your kids such similar names. But it’s impressive that one sister wound up on the state supreme court and the other in the state senate (before she had to resign after her own criminal charges). The Ories sound like a Republican, backwoods version of the Kennedys — “a prominent Western Pennsylvania political family,” per Wikipedia.

So how exactly did Orie Melvin misapply government funds and commit theft of services? She used her government staffers for political purposes:

Among the allegations are that staffers wrote speeches, drove her to campaign events and worked the polls.

The jury was hung on one count of official oppression against Justice Orie Melvin.

Justice Orie Melvin is now a convicted felon, but not officially oppressive. Don’t dare call her a judicial diva.

Even though Orie Melvin wasn’t convicted until today, the past year hasn’t been fun for her. She was first indicted in May 2012, and she was suspended from the high court shortly thereafter. In August, the Court of Judicial Discipline ruled that she should not be paid her $195,309 salary while suspended.

Before the start of her trial, Justice Orie Melvin made a cute move. She tried to argue that only her court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, could exercise jurisdiction over the charges against her. Sadly for Her Honor, that argument didn’t fly with her six colleagues.

And that wasn’t the first time the Ories fared poorly before a court. The earlier trial of Senator Jane Orie on similar theft-of-services charges ended in a mistrial after the prosecution accused the defense of doctoring documents:

Prosecutor Lawrence Claus displayed three documents that he said showed evidence that the signature of Jamie Pavlot was cut and pasted from one document to another. Ms. Pavlot was Ms. Orie’s top aide in the North Hills office and a major witness for the prosecution.

Defense attorney William Costopoulos said “these were not doctored.” A clearly irate Judge Jeffrey Manning rejected the protest.

“Ray Charles could see that signature was doctored,” he said, pointing to an image of one document projected on the wall.

Unfortunately for Orie Melvin, justice was blind in her case, and she got convicted despite her judicial office and well-connected family.

Before winning election to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and serving on the intermediate appeals court, Justice Orie Melvin served as a trial court judge. If sentenced to prison, will she bump into any defendants she sentenced?

If so — watch out, Your Honor. An orange jumpsuit doesn’t inspire the same respect as a black robe.

Jury finds Orie Melvin guilty on all but one count [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]
Pa. Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin convicted of corruption [Associated Press]
Trial and error: A justice’s appeal to her colleagues had no merit [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]
State Court Judges Are Icky [Underneath Their Robes]
Diane Hathaway, Ex-Michigan Supreme Court Justice, Pleads Guilty To Bank Fraud [Huffington Post]

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