Orie Melvin judge wants removal from Pennsylvania Supreme Court addressed

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The judge who will sentence suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin ordered the attorneys in the case Wednesday to address her removal from the court in briefs due next month.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus cites two specific sections of the Pennsylvania Constitution that must be addressed in the sentencing briefs due April 15.

They include "Suspension, Removal, Discipline and Other Sanctions" under Article V, which refers to the judiciary, and Removal of Civil Officers, under Article VI referring to public officers.

Under the first section, the Constitution notes: "A justice, judge or justice of the peace convicted of misbehavior in office by a court ... shall forfeit automatically his judicial office and thereafter be ineligible for judicial office."

Under the section referring to public officers, it reads: "All civil officers shall hold their offices on the condition that they behave themselves well while in office, and shall be removed on conviction of misbehavior in office or of any infamous crime."

Justice Orie Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, were convicted in February of several counts related to using judicial staff -- as well as the legislative staff of another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie -- to campaign in 2003 and 2009 for the state Supreme Court.

The justice was found guilty of six counts, including three felonies. They include theft of services, criminal conspiracy and misapplication of government funds.

She voluntarily stepped away from her position the day charges were filed against her in May, but hours later was formally suspended by the court.

It now appears that her removal is inevitable.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz said he saw no reason for Judge Nauhaus to ask the attorneys to address removal.

"It certainly is automatic under the circumstances of this case," he said. "If this indicates there's an actual legal question here, it comes as a surprise to me."

The professor said it could just be an effort by the judge to give each side the opportunity to be fully heard on the issue.

Neither the prosecution nor defense would comment.

Mr. Ledewitz believes that it is an entirely different part of the Constitution -- Article II Section 7, which was used to remove former Pennsylvania Justice Rolf Larsen in 1994 -- that is at issue.

"Ineligibility by Criminal Convictions" reads that "No person hereafter convicted of embezzlement of public moneys, bribery, perjury or other infamous crime, shall be eligible to the General Assembly, or capable of holding any office of trust or profit in this Commonwealth."

"Any theft is an infamous crime," Mr. Ledewitz said.

He, like other legal observers have said that it is possible, if not likely, Justice Orie Melvin will be removed from her position on the high court when she is sentenced by Judge Nauhaus on May 7.

The same occurred with Justice Rolf Larsen when he was sentenced by Common Pleas Judge W. Terrence O'Brien in June 1994 on two counts of conspiracy for using his employees to purchase psychotropic medication for him. He was found not guilty on 14 other counts and sentenced to probation.

An impeachment trial was also held in October of that year, and the state Senate convicted Larsen on one charge for making improper contact with an attorney. He was formally removed and banned from holding office.

Mr. Ledewitz believes that impeachment for Justice Orie Melvin is unnecessary. He expects that she will be removed by Judge Nauhaus at sentencing, and will likely face the same penalty from the Court of Judicial Discipline. That means that even if she were to prevail on an appeal of her criminal conviction, the sanction by the Court of Judicial Discipline would remain intact.

Because Larsen had made separate allegations against fellow members of the court, Mr. Ledewitz said, impeachment proceedings were held to provide a public airing of the issues.

On Monday, two state representatives asked colleagues to join them in bringing a resolution in the House to begin impeachment proceedings.

Nothing has yet come of it.

"I don't expect the legislature to go forward with this," Mr. Ledewitz said.

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published March 13, 2013 11:30 AM


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