Shame in the family: Justice Joan Orie Melvin needs to resign her seat

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The conviction of suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister Janine Orie on public corruption charges in Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Thursday invites several emotions -- and none of them uplifting.

The most charitable reaction would be to view their trial's outcome as a family tragedy. The defendants' sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, is already in prison serving a 21/2- to 10-year sentence on similar charges involving the same basic complaint -- using state resources to further political ends.

But the tragedy for the Orie family is of their own making, which is why sympathy stretches no further than relatives and friends. The affront is to the people of Pennsylvania. They have a right to expect that any judge will scrupulously obey the laws and not stoop to tawdry politicking on the taxpayers' dime.

That Ms. Orie Melvin, 56, is a justice on the highest court in the commonwealth makes her behavior more reprehensible and her fall more shocking. If the citizens can't look to the Supreme Court for exemplary behavior, they can be forgiven for thinking that maybe it can't be found anywhere in the judicial system.

The jury was clearly in no doubt about the guilt of the defendants, although they did not rush to judgment. After taking their time over several days, the members of the jury found the Orie sisters guilty of theft of services, conspiracy and misapplication of government funds. (Janine Orie, 58, the justice's former administrative aide, was also convicted of tampering with evidence and solicitation.)

Only on one count did the jury become hopelessly divided in the face of conflicting testimony -- that of official oppression against the justice for terminating her chief law clerk for failing to do political work. Judge Lester G. Nauhaus ruled that the jury was hung on that charge.

There's one last reaction to this verdict to compete with the various shades of public displeasure -- incredulity at the stupidity and pettiness of it all. No one holding positions of public trust in Pennsylvania should be so naive or heedless to think she (or he) can operate in the way that the evidence described.

Whatever appeals may be lodged, Justice Orie Melvin owes one debt to the people of Pennsylvania for all that has happened -- she needs to resign immediately. If she wants to continue to fight for her innocence that is her business, but she should spare the people an impeachment trial or other judicial proceedings to dislodge her. The court has been hamstrung during her suspension, and for her there is no going back.



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