Orie case may affect sister on state supreme court
April 2, 2012 4:00 AM
Sen. Jane Orie leaves the courthouse March 26.
By Ben Present The Legal Intelligencer
Now that a jury has found state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, guilty on 14 of the 24 corruption charges she faced, the question becomes how the conviction might affect her sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was recently reported to be the target of an investigating grand jury.
According to some legal observers, Ms. Orie's verdict Monday -- which will likely cost the senator her job and could mean time in prison -- does little to settle the fate of Justice Orie Melvin.
The focus now shifts to a third sister, Janine Orie, whom the state hit with two rounds of corruption charges, the second of which had implications for Justice Orie Melvin. And that's where the justice might face some problems, legal observers said.
"I don't think there's anything that happened in the Jane Orie case that would lead the DA's office here to believe that they couldn't successfully prosecute Janine Orie and, as a result, successfully prosecute the justice as well," said John M. Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh. "If Janine is acquitted, there would be a substantial likelihood the justice would not be charged."
In a Dec. 16, 2011, indictment against Janine Orie, prosecutors alleged that, when Justice Orie Melvin was a candidate for the high court, she used her state Superior Court staff for campaign work while they were supposed to be carrying out court-related duties.
The presentment was the first document in the case to contain any allegation that the justice herself had directed her staff to do campaign work on state time.
Justice Orie Melvin has not been charged with any wrongdoing.
While Jane Orie had been charged with using her legislative staff to campaign for both herself and Justice Orie Melvin, the jury found the senator not guilty on the theft and ethics-related charges involving the justice's campaign.
Mr. Burkoff said acquittal on those particular charges does not necessarily clear the justice. He pointed to the second presentment against Janine Orie, with its implications for Justice Orie Melvin, and the likelihood that the state would call new witnesses at Janine Orie's trial as reasons why the high court's newest justice hadn't eschewed a possible indictment.
Shira Goodman, deputy director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, agreed that a new set of witnesses could expose the justice. "If the trial of Janine is going to have people testifying from chambers, you're going to hear more about the justice herself," Ms. Goodman said.
Janine Orie is expected to stand trial on charges that she used both her sister's legislative staff and the justice's judicial staff when Justice Orie Melvin was a Superior Court judge to work on the justice's campaign for the high court.
Mr. Burkoff added that prosecutors might wait for a disposition in Janine Orie's case before pursuing charges against Justice Orie Melvin.
"I can't tell you why they haven't filed charges before now," he said. "To the extent the potential [allegations] against Justice Orie Melvin are similar to or the same as those already filed against Janine Orie, then it would make sense for the DA's office to wait and see what happens in Janine's case."
But while that plays out, according to another Western Pennsylvania law professor, the state's high bench is working as a "malfunctioning court."
"We just cannot go on in this limbo in which we have a part-time justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," said Duquesne University School of Law professor Bruce Ledewitz. "I'm just amazed that more pressure has not been raised for her to resign."
Mr. Ledewitz pointed to at least one case out of Allegheny County to reach the Supreme Court in which he said Justice Orie Melvin recused herself because of the allegations against her sisters in that county.
In that case, her vote would have turned the court.
In Commonwealth v. Antoszyk, the Supreme Court came back last month with an evenly divided affirmance of the Superior Court. According to court records, Justice Orie Melvin was not on the intermediate appellate court panel that decided the case.
Mr. Ledewitz, who has publicly called for Justice Orie Melvin's resignation from the bench, said there is no reason for her to recuse herself from Allegheny County cases "unless she is under some threat of indictment."
"In which case she should recuse herself from every case," he added.
He noted that Jane Orie's conviction appears to leave the direct allegations against Justice Orie Melvin -- stemming from the charges against Janine Orie -- "untouched."
Ms. Orie's criminal defense attorney, William C. Costopoulos, did not return a call requesting comment. Justice Orie Melvin was not available for comment.