Justice Joan Orie Melvin staying on state Supreme Court amid probe

Joan Orie Melvin received subpoena, notice of being under investigation in December

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Justice Joan Orie Melvin continues to sit on the state Supreme Court even after receiving a letter last month identifying her as the target of a criminal investigation.

Justice Melvin, a Republican, received the letter and subpoena to appear before the Allegheny County investigating grand jury on Dec. 15 -- the day before additional charges were filed against her sister Janine.

The justice received the letter and subpoena about a week before. She did not testify and has not been charged.

Justice Melvin's attorney, J. Alan Johnson, could not be reached for comment.

Mike Manko, a spokesman for the Allegheny County district attorney's office, had no comment.

State Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Janine Orie initially were charged in the spring of 2010 with using the senator's staff to help run the Supreme Court election campaign for now-Justice Melvin.

The initial trial against Jane and Janine Orie ended in March 2011 without a verdict after the prosecution accused the defense of submitting falsified documents to the jury.

Subsequent to that, prosecutors added forgery and perjury charges to the counts against Jane Orie.

And on Dec. 16, after the return of a second grand-jury presentment, Janine Orie was charged with four additional counts, including theft of services, criminal solicitation and tampering with evidence.

At a preliminary hearing on those charges, a former law clerk, who worked for Justice Melvin when she served on the Common Pleas and Superior courts, testified that she was required to write the woman's campaign speeches and travel with her.

All of the additional charges have been merged together, and Jane and Janine Orie are scheduled to go on trial before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning on Feb. 13.

In the meantime, Justice Melvin remains on the Supreme Court, although she has removed herself from any case involving the Allegheny County district attorney's office.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille declined to comment on the reports regarding Justice Melvin, but said the usual practice in Pennsylvania is for judges to be suspended with pay once charges are filed.

At the same time, he said, a four-member majority of the court could decide to suspend any justice, even without charges being filed.

"That same procedure would apply to any judge or justice in the state, including me," he said.

Jim Koval, a spokesman with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, had no comment on the situation.

Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, called for Justice Melvin to take a leave of absence -- or for the rest of the Supreme Court to suspend her.

"All citizens, including judges, are presumed innocent until proven guilty," Ms. Marks said, "But judges, and especially Supreme Court justices, should not be permitted to judge others while under the cloud of such a serious investigation."

Justice Melvin is also the subject of an inquiry by the Judicial Conduct Board of Pennsylvania.

Activist Gene Stilp filed a formal complaint against the justice in spring 2010, shortly after the initial grand jury presentment was returned against Jane and Janine Orie.

Mr. Stilp confirmed with the board on Monday that his complaint is still active.

Joseph Massa, chief counsel for the Judicial Conduct Board, would not comment, and he said he could neither confirm nor deny the existence of any investigation.

William Arbuckle, who is representing Justice Melvin in the judicial conduct board matter, was traveling and could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Mr. Stilp claimed that actions attributed to Justice Melvin in the 2010 presentment violated the code of judicial conduct and endangered "the integrity and public confidence in the court."

He also cited nepotism in his complaint, as Janine Orie was employed by the justice in an administrative capacity.

Janine Orie has since been placed on leave without pay.

Mr. Stilp said he plans to file an addendum to his initial complaint this week, citing additional information contained in the December grand jury presentment.

If the judicial conduct board finds it warranted, formal charges could be filed with the state Court of Judicial Discipline, at which point it would become a matter of public record.

Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Joseph Tanfani contributed to this article. Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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