There was some speculation that an Allegheny County trial judge would send former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin to jail on Thursday, after her lawyers got part of her public corruption sentence suspended on appeal.
Instead Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus sought to suspend her entire sentence, from her probation to house arrest, while the matter works its way through higher state courts.
The latest acrimonious hearing among Judge Nauhaus and defense attorneys for Orie Melvin and her sister Janine Orie came after the state Superior Court stayed part of his sentence forcing the former justice to send signed apology photographs to other judges statewide. If that piece of the sentence was on hold, the judge said, he might as well put the rest of it “on pause” during its appeal.
“She can go to church any day she wants. She doesn’t have to go to the soup kitchen. The whole sentence is stayed,” the judge said toward the start of the 20-minute hearing.
Janine Orie’s defense attorney Patrick Casey strenuously objected. There is no authority “that would permit this court to adjust this sentence,” he said, adding it would amount to double jeopardy for his client.
By the end of the hearing the judge held off on pausing the sentence and called for further arguments at 10:30 a.m. today.
Orie Melvin and Orie were found guilty of using judicial and legislative staff for another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to run Orie Melvin’s election campaigns in 2003 and 2009.
Janine Orie was sentenced to one year’s house arrest and at Thursday’s hearing her attorney, James DePasquale, had requested a brief suspension to allow her to help care for the sisters’ ailing father. Judge Nauhaus played the defense lawyers against each other.
“What I have is two attorneys in front of me taking two diametrically opposed positions,” he said.
Orie seemed angered by the talk and began talking to her sister Joan during the hearing, moving Judge Nauhaus to warn her against “chitter-chatter.” She then asked Mr. DePasquale to withdraw her request.
Last week the Superior Court agreed to temporarily suspend part of Judge Nauhaus’ sentence ordering Orie Melvin to write apology letters after her legal team argued that violated her right against self-incrimination while her overall conviction was under appeal.
The court noted in its opinion, though, that if it is finally ruled that the apology requirement was an essential part of Judge Nauhaus’ overall sentence, Orie Melvin could be resentenced and face possible jail time — a suggestion made by the prosecution. Judge Nauhaus said last week he would not order her to jail, but his announcements Thursday still came as a surprise.
“My complaint in this whole thing,” the judge told Mr. Casey, in explaining his desire to freeze the whole sentence, “is you’re cherry-picking. You found a piece of the sentence you didn’t like.”
“This court no longer has any jurisdiction of any kind” over the sentence, Mr. Casey argued back. “The Superior Court will interpret this [pause in the sentence] as a change.”
“Maybe we’ll give them a chance to do that,” the judge replied.
Timothy McNulty: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1581.