Creative injustice: A low penalty for high misconduct is a disgrace

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Despite what some might think, the sound that came from the courtroom of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus on Tuesday morning was not to be mistaken for a slap on the wrist. It was the sound of state taxpayers being slapped in the face.

Before Judge Nauhaus stood disgraced former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was convicted on Feb. 21 of six of seven counts, including conspiracy, theft of services and misapplication of government funds.

The shorthand version is that the convicted felon ripped off Pennsylvania taxpayers as she did campaign work on the state's time and dime. The public was her victim. So was the judicial system she shamed.

Judge Nauhaus knew the seriousness of the charges. "These are felonies," he told her.

He understood her arrogance -- "stunning," he called it.

He recognized the damage she had done. "You ruined an awful lot of people," he said. "This was not a single error of judgment."

He acknowledged that she never was forthright about her crimes. "You have consistently refused to accept responsibility for any of the wrong you have done," he said. He even used the word "shame" for her effect on the judiciary.

But he also said he didn't think she was evil. He didn't think prison is a place for those who are not dangerous and he said it would cost the taxpayers a fortune. So after all that tough throw-the-book-at-her talk, which might have been the prelude to the justice she deserved, he threw a tissue in her direction.

He sentenced Orie Melvin to three years' house arrest with two years' probation to follow. She must pay $55,000 in fines and do community service three days a week in a soup kitchen. She is allowed to leave her home to go to church.

Doubtless plenty of inmates in state prison who are also not evil and have done less damage would love to have a sentence so extraordinarily lenient. Lesser inmates also might welcome the final absurdity of the sentence imposed upon her. They might confuse it with a joke,

The judge made Orie Melvin pose in handcuffs for a photographer and he ordered her to write notes of apology on the back of copies of the photo and send them to all the judges and justices in Pennsylvania. It's a wonder that she wasn't made to stand at a blackboard and write 100 times "I will not use state resources to campaign for the benefit of the Orie family."

This does seem a specialty of the Orie family. The former justice's sister, Jane Orie, a former senator, is in prison on similar charges. Another sister, Janine Orie, also stood before Judge Nauhaus Tuesday and received a lighter version of the light sentence -- one year of house arrest, followed by two years of probation.

Even though in the judge's opinion Janine Orie had been "knee-deep in the conspiracy," her sentence reflected the fact that she was not in a lofty position of public trust. Not so the sentence for her formerly exalted sister. And the judge's attempt at creative sentencing was the final insult to the public's intelligence. Perhaps he was trying to shame her, but that could only be done with the clank of a closing prison door.

Now the judicial system is doubly shamed -- first by the former justice's actions and now with the perception established by Judge Nauhaus that justice for the high and mighty in Pennsylvania is not the same as that for everyone else.



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