Trial and error: A justice's appeal to her colleagues had no merit

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Chutzpah is not a legal term, but it describes suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's unsuccessful attempt to have her fellow justices halt her trial, which is scheduled for Jan. 23.

The charges filed against Justice Orie Melvin include theft of services, misapplication of entrusted property, official oppression and conspiracy to tamper with evidence. The root of the complaints is that she used state-paid staff to do political work, clearly a criminal matter. Similar charges put her sister, disgraced former state Sen. Jane Orie, in prison.

Yet the justice's attorneys insisted that a constitutional question was involved. They said that many of the counts against her were based upon political activity, which they contended only the Supreme Court has the authority to regulate.

In their first attempt to sell this desperate argument, in December before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, the judge asked the justice's attorneys the crucial question: "Because Joan Orie Melvin is a Supreme Court justice, she's above the law?"

A small child passing by on Grant Street could have answered this question with an emphatic "no" -- just as Judge Nauhaus in effect did in denying the motion.

On Monday her attorneys went back to ask the remaining six justices on the state's highest court to grant a King's Bench review. The justices wasted no time. Three days later they issued a two-sentence order with no opinion attached, denying Ms. Orie Melvin's petition.

Her colleagues' message was clear and simple: Justice Joan Orie Melvin is not above the law.



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