Orie Melvin faces removal from state Supreme Court

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For suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, it appears that the end is near.

Whether it comes in the form of removal, impeachment or resignation, Pennsylvania officials on Thursday made it clear that the woman convicted of using her staff and that of her sister to run for election should no longer sit on the high court.

Even before she was found guilty on six counts -- including three felonies -- the Supreme Court removed the justice from the bench.

She was suspended the day the charges were filed against her in May, and in August, the Court of Judicial Discipline followed a recommendation by the Judicial Conduct Board that the suspension be without pay.

Now, according to Robert Graci, chief counsel for the Judicial Conduct Board, the case of Justice Orie Melvin will play itself out with a trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline to determine if Justice Orie Melvin violated the rules of professional conduct or the state Constitution or brought the judiciary into disrepute.

"We're not retrying the criminal case," Mr. Graci said.

If the court finds the evidence presented by the Judicial Conduct Board, which observed the justice's criminal trial, is clear and convincing, the case would then go to a sanction hearing. The penalties, he said, could range from reprimand to removal and a ban from holding further office.

Disbarment is a separate proceeding. It would be initiated by the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court.

Justice Orie Melvin also could be impeached by the state Legislature, a process that starts in the House with a resolution, and then the same body would conduct an investigation. If there are findings that would call for an impeachment, the House would send those to the Senate, which would then conduct a full trial.

"The impeachment process is very long, and it is very onerous," said Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington and a member of the House Judiciary Committee, who added that the easiest way for Justice Orie Melvin to leave the court would be through resignation.

The last impeachment of a state Supreme Court justice came on the heels of a 1994 criminal conviction of Rolf Larsen on two counts of conspiracy. Prosecutors said he used his staff to obtain psychotropic medications for him to hide depression and anxiety.

Larsen was first suspended from the court and later removed by the judge at his sentencing on the criminal charges.

In addition, the Senate conducted impeachment proceedings.

No one has been appointed to fill Justice Orie Melvin's seat on the bench, even though the court is split both by party and ideology, 3-3.

"There have been some high-profile cases, and the court has functioned very well," said Art Heinz, a Supreme Court spokesman. "The governor can't appoint someone until there is a vacancy on the court.

"Until such time as she is removed, that's not in play right now."

Once a vacancy officially occurs, the governor will have 90 days to appoint a replacement, said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State.

That person must then be confirmed by two-thirds of the state Senate. The newly chosen justice would serve until January 2016, with an election to fill the seat held in November 2015. Judicial vacancies are filled by appointment if the vacancy occurs less than 10 months before the next judicial election.

Legal advocates are using the verdict to once again push for a change in Pennsylvania's system for electing judges.

"Pennsylvanians deserve a better judicial system. It's time to get judges out of the campaign and fundraising business," said Lynn A. Marks, the executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. "Our legislators must take the first steps to make it happen. Once they do, the people can decide for themselves whether to change their constitution. It's time to act."

Pennsylvania Bar Association President Thomas G. Wilkinson agreed.

"The selection and appointment of judges should be based on experience and performance and not on ballot position, political party or effectiveness in campaign fundraising."

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published February 22, 2013 5:00 AM


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