Joan Orie Melvin should be in a sorrier state

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Imagine going to prison for not doing your homework.

That's what former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin could face. After her conviction on corruption charges last May, Orie Melvin was sentenced to both house arrest and the tedious chore of sending apologies to each of the state's judges -- on the back of a photo of herself in handcuffs.

Yes, she didn't so much get off easy as get off wacky, but now it's looking like she could trade that deal for what's behind Cell Door Number One.

Allegheny County prosecutors say that because Orie Melvin has yet to write any of those apology notes, she may need jail time.

The "appellant's arrogance is something that must be addressed in order for her rehabilitation to be successful,'' deputy district attorney Michael W. Streily wrote in a 20-page court filing.

Anyone hoping for a sign of remorse or humility from Orie Melvin is still waiting. Five months is more than enough time to get these apologies out without any danger of writer's cramp, but her lawyers say she has been procrastinating for a reason. They have asked county Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus to either stay that portion of her sentence pending her appeal or to chuck it altogether.

"The requirement that Orie Melvin admit that she ordered staff to 'do illegal work' under threat of incarceration while her case is on direct appeal is tantamount to a coerced confession and cannot be squared with the constitutionally mandated provision against self-incrimination," wrote Patrick Casey, her defense attorney.

Mr. Casey went on to call the requirement for mea culpas on the back of all those look-at-me-in-handcuffs photos "both bizarre and abusive.''

Bizarre? Absolutely. Abusive? It's hard to find a repetitive writing task a la Bart Simpson abusive when other elected officials convicted of similar crimes have been doing hard time in prison. One need only look to Orie Melvin's sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, serving 2?? to 10 years in the slammer for using her staff for her own and Orie Melvin's campaigns, and then forging documents to cover that up.

So even if Judge Nauhaus' sentence is self-aggrandizing, shifting the attention to himself rather than her, and therefore as arrogant in its way as Orie Melvin was in hers, so what? Maybe, as they say in the schoolyard, it takes one to know one. Either way, a little public shaming can be a valuable thing. No sitting judge should soon forget that a crime like Orie Melvin's can mean a statewide prostration before your peers.

She asked Judge Nauhaus months ago to back off on the written apologies, but he didn't. Last week, when she learned he might conduct a probation violation hearing on the issue, her legal team asked her old colleagues on the state Supreme Court for an emergency stay of that aspect of her punishment. That was granted, hence the response from county prosecutors that she ought to be resentenced.

The apology is integral to her punishment. If it's not there, three years of house arrest seems suddenly and ridiculously light. Mr. Nauhaus should be able to stay the entire sentence and come up with a new, deluxe prison package, if he deems that appropriate.

I share Orie Melvin's Roman Catholic faith, and so am uncomfortable with the prosecution alluding to it in its filing, reminding us that the tenets of our religion "stress the importance of humility and not abusing positions of power."

Those are by no means uniquely Catholic tenets. What religion expressly espouses arrogance or the abuse of power? No, this is about justice in the secular realm.

I've visited a legislator currently doing hard time on corruption charges in a state prison, and while I've never visited Orie Melvin in her home, I trust her accommodations are far superior. She's risking that good break here.

So if perchance she's been watching "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" on her home television, she might consider an episode not yet written: "Picking up a pen beats being sent to one.''

The title's a little on the long side, but it promises to be one compelling drama. Stay tuned.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947. First Published October 9, 2013 8:35 PM


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