Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was found guilty of six criminal counts and sentenced in May 2013.
By Jonathan D. Silver / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Sorry, but experts say a court-ordered apology proposed by convicted former state Supreme Court justice Joan Orie Melvin shifts blame, comes off as insincere and ranks as a “non-apology.”
In perhaps the unkindest cut of all, the man who wrote “Sorry About That: The Language of Public Apology,” which was published this year, described it as “lawyerly.”
“It’s clearly an apology that someone was forced to make,” said Edwin Battistella, an English professor at Southern Oregon University who analyzed about 100 public apologies — from Martha Stewart’s to Bill Clinton’s — for his book. “It’s sort of clear ... that she’s not happy about this. So she’s not really owning the apology.”
Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, who presided over Orie Melvin’s trial on charges that she wrongfully used her staff and that of her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, for her election campaigns, sentenced her in May 2013 to house arrest. He also ordered her to write an apology to her staffers and the state judiciary on photos of her in handcuffs.
The state Superior Court did away with the requirement for a photograph, but found no problem with the apology. Orie Melvin had fought that element of her sentence, claiming it amounted to self-incrimination.
But in a surprise move, her attorneys Tuesday dropped an appeal that was before her former colleagues on the Supreme Court. They said she would indeed send apology letters to her former staff and the entire state judiciary. Two short draft letters, almost identical, were included in the court filing.
Orie Melvin references the part of her sentence forcing her to make apologies and writes, “This has been a humiliating experience. It has likewise brought unfathomable distress to my family.”
“In reflection,” the letter to the judiciary continues, “I wish I had been more diligent in my supervision of my staff and that I had given them more careful instructions with respect to the prohibition on political activity.”
To her former staffers, she writes, “I apologize for any difficulty that my case has caused you.”
Orie Melvin does not acknowledge any wrongdoing or apologize for breaking the law. Rather, she writes that she was accused of misusing her office and pleaded not guilty, but was found guilty at trial. “As a matter of law,” she wrote, “I am guilty of these offenses.”
She did say she was sorry for any negative impact on the public’s perception of the courts caused by publicity surrounding her case.
“I apologize for any difficulty it has imposed upon your discharge of your responsibilities as a judge.”
Not everyone was impressed.
John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor, said, “This is, of course, a perfect example of the boilerplate political figure’s non-apology ‘apology’ letter: ‘I apologize for the problems this prosecution may have caused you [judges and staff], I’ve really suffered as a result of this. But I don’t concede that my behavior was actually criminal.’ ”
Mr. Battistella said the letter does not fulfill the basic requirements of an apology: identifying what you did wrong and minimizing excuses. “She talked about how it had been a great ordeal and she was sorry it happened, but it wasn’t clear whether she was sorry she was convicted or sorry that she did anything wrong. She sort of left it vague.”
Orie Melvin’s Scranton-based attorney, Patrick Casey, declined comment.
Though he might not want to speak with the media, Mr. Casey could be forced to deal with the issue publicly at some point.
The Allegheny County district attorney’s office, which prosecuted the case, took issue with the form of the apology. The office contacted Judge Nauhaus, who did not return a call from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette seeking comment.
“We have concerns about the language of the proposed letters included as exhibits with the filing and have communicated those concerns to the trial judge,” said Mike Manko, the DA’s spokesman. “While Ms. Orie-Melvin contends in her filing that she wishes to resume her entire sentence including the issuance of letters of apology, attempting to deflect blame for her actions to members of her staff can hardly be considered an apology.”
Mr. Burkoff said that regardless of the level of Orie Melvin’s sincerity, the apology should fulfill the sentence. “The deterrent function of an apology will be satisfied in that every judge in the commonwealth will have been made well aware of the consequences of this kind of conduct,” he said.
“And as to the sentencing judge’s interest in rehabilitation, well let’s just say ‘you can’t get blood out of a stone.’ Making her write more that she doesn’t actually believe, essentially pressing her to write ‘I was bad’ on the public blackboard five hundred times will not, at least in my opinion, end up making her a better person. It’s time to put this whole sordid episode behind us.”