Dispute over Justice Melvin's pay continues
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Should Justice Joan Orie Melvin, charged criminally last month with nine counts of using legislative and judicial staff to perform campaign work, be suspended with pay -- or without it?
The question was unresolved by the end of the 90-minute hearing before a three-judge panel of the Pennsylvania Court of Judicial Discipline last week in Harrisburg. The panel had been asked to decide whether the disciplinary court itself has the power to suspend Justice Melvin without pay, despite the fact that a separate panel, the Judicial Conduct Board, as well as the justice's own counsel have agreed that she should continue her paid suspension.
Justice Melvin was charged in Allegheny County on May 18. On May 22, the conduct court issued an order suspending the judge, who was not present at Tuesday's hearing, with pay -- based on the conduct board's recommendation.
But it convened a hearing Tuesday to allow the parties to present testimony as to whether the order should stand or the justice should be suspended without pay.
The problem was that the board appeared to be uninterested in presenting testimony, instead joining Justice Melvin's attorney, William "Skip" Arbuckle III of the Mazza Law Group in State College, in urging the court to defer to the parties' stipulation that the justice remain on a paid suspension.
Judicial Conduct Board Deputy Chief Counsel Francis J. Puskas II did enter five items into evidence -- the grand jury presentments and police complaints against both Justice Melvin and her sister, the recently jailed former state Sen. Jane Orie, as well as witness testimony from Ms. Orie's preliminary hearing -- but said the conduct board did not wish to present live testimony and was instead taking the position that Justice Melvin's paid suspension should stand.
However, Court of Judicial Discipline President Judge Robert E.J. Curran, flanked by former President Judge John W. Morris and Magisterial District Judge Charles A. Clement Jr., said the parties' agreement "overlooks or ignores" the primary function of the court, which is to protect the integrity of the state's judicial system.
The "elephant in the room" during the hearing, as Mr. Arbuckle put it, was recent public criticism accusing both the board and the court of allowing Justice Melvin to take a "paid vacation" while she fights criminal charges.
Judge Curran mentioned it more than once during the hearing, taking particular issue with the fact that Mr. Arbuckle had written a letter to the Supreme Court on May 18, immediately after charges were filed against Justice Melvin, announcing her intention to recuse herself from all judicial duties until the resolution of her criminal case.
Mr. Puskas said he believed Mr. Arbuckle's letter was an "attempt to save face" on behalf of Justice Melvin and that it was of no consequence since the Supreme Court's order came almost immediately after.
Mr. Arbuckle disputed this, arguing instead it was done deliberately in order to carry out the justice's duty to protect the integrity of the judiciary.
He added that a ruling by the disciplinary court suspending Justice Melvin without pay would send the wrong message to judges across Pennsylvania: that they must be independently wealthy in case "some local DA wants them charged" and they're forced to pay for a defense.
Mr. Arbuckle said public criticism would be a "small price to pay" to keep judges from having to worry about being charged criminally. He added that the court's function is "not to set policy in a vacuum" but instead to simply decide the issue before it.
Judge Curran said the court would schedule another hearing in order to hear any testimony that might help it reach a conclusion. He said another hearing would be scheduled most likely for sometime later this month.
First Published June 18, 2012 12:00 am