Allegheny County

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?

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If you spend any time around criminal defense lawyers, progressive lawyers, or people in a black barber shop, you’ll hear the claim that African-American criminal defendants receive harsher sentences than their white counterparts. People have done studies about this, people have written reports about this, people have held conferences about this institutional expression of discrimination.

Rarely do we see anybody trying to do anything about it. There are many reasons this fundamental unfairness persists, but only one of those reasons makes any sense: at the end of the day, nobody wants to be more lenient on a convicted criminal just because that criminal is black. And nobody wants to be more harsh towards a white criminal just because he’s white. So while we have these wide variations in sentencing outcomes, judges can’t re-balance the system from the bench. They have to sentence the criminal in front of them.

But that doesn’t mean judges are blind to the racial injustice of the system. And it doesn’t mean that judges can’t do what they have to in order to make sure that a particular punishment fits the crime.

I’m sure that Judge Joseph Williams of Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, will be making all of those arguments shortly. Because he just threw out a plea on the grounds that the prosecutor had been too lenient on the young criminal, just because the criminal is white.

And to be clear, this wasn’t a passing or offhand remark from Judge Williams. Instead, he really laid into the prosecutor in this case…

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