Justice Joan Orie Melvin to step away from state Supreme Court to fight charges

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State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin surrendered to authorities this afternoon to face nine criminal counts pertaining to her alleged use of state resources for campaign purposes.

She arrived at City Court, Downtown, at 1:40 p.m., accompanied by her brother, attorney Jack Orie, and one of her daughters, Casey Melvin.

"I am a woman of faith," Justice Melvin said after she was released without bond following a video arraignment. "My strong faith in God is the cornerstone of my life. My faith will see me through this."

She denied the allegations against her.

"I entered a plea of not guilty today and I will vigorously defend these politically motivated charges," she said. "The voters overwhelmingly sent me to the Supreme Court and I will not resign because of these politically motivated charges."

She took no questions after speaking, walking briskly to a waiting car.

Allegheny County assistant district attorney Lawrence N. Claus called Justice Melvin's comments "disingenuous."

"It is somewhat disappointing to hear the same old rhetoric," he said.

Hours later, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board filed formal charges against state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and requested her interim suspension.

The suspension is a moot point, however, as she had already volunteered to step down this morning, and the state Supreme Court issued an additional order requiring her suspension.

According to a letter Justice Melvin's attorney submitted to Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, she said she would recuse.

"In order to avoid the appearance of impropriety and in accordance with precedent, Justice Orie Melvin is voluntarily recusing herself from all judicial duties pending resolution of the criminal charges," wrote William I. Arbuckle III, who has been representing the justice in a pending Judicial Conduct Board investigation.

He continued, "She is not resigning from the court. The justice denies any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend these politically motivated criminal charges."

Joan Orie Melvin

Justice Melvin was identified as a target of the grand jury in December. The charges include three counts of theft of services, two counts of criminal conspiracy to commit tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, two counts of official oppression and one count each of criminal conspiracy to commit theft of services and misapplication of entrusted property of government.

Mr. Arbuckle hopes that because the justice has voluntarily stepped aside the Judicial Conduct Board and Court of Judicial Discipline will suspend proceedings until the criminal case is resolved.

Typically, that is the case.

Unless action is taken, it is likely that Justice Mevlin will continue to receive her pay. If the charges against her are bound over to Common Pleas Court at a preliminary hearing -- likely within the next several weeks -- she would be placed on leave without pay.

If Justice Melvin prevails in the case, she would receive back pay.

According to a 75-page grand jury presentment, the charges include allegations against Justice Melvin between 2003 and 2009.

"It now appears that not only was Justice Orie Melvin directly and knowingly involved in using state paid staffers from both the judicial and legislative branches of the Pennsylvania government in her political campaign activities, but it also appears that she was aided in those endeavors by two accomplices, co-conspirator and siblings -- Janine Mary Orie and Jane Clare Orie," according to the presentment.

Two sisters, state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Janine Orie were charged in April 2010 with misusing the senator's legislative staff to do campaign work. Janine Orie worked for the justice from 1997 until 2010.

Jane Orie was convicted on 14 of 24 criminal counts in March and will be sentenced June 4. Janine Orie's case was severed and is scheduled for August.

Mr. Claus said if prosecutors can move the case beyond a preliminary hearing, Justice Melvin's case could be tried together with Janine Orie's.

The Judicial Conduct Board, which began an investigation into Justice Melvin several months ago, late today issued a formal complaint against her, incorporating much of the information from the grand jury presentment.

It requests from the Court of Judicial Discipline interim suspension with pay, listing a number of allegations, including that Justice Melvin failed to fulfill her administrative responsibilities in supervising her staff, because judicial employees are forbidden in any way from engaging in political or campaign activities.

"The pending felony criminal charges against Justice Orie Melvin undermine both public confidence in the judiciary and its reputation."

If convicted on any felony counts, the board asks that the court convert it to a suspension without pay.

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Paula Reed Ward: pward@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620. First Published May 18, 2012 3:00 PM


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