Attorneys for a state Supreme Court justice charged with corruption said as her trial began that their defense will be simple:
“Joan Orie Melvin is innocent. We've been waiting a long time to say that,” attorney Daniel T. Brier said. “I urge you to pay attention to the evidence because today, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, the silence ends and the truth begins.”
Friday's opening day of the trial of Melvin, 56, of Marshall and her sister and former staffer Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless ended not long after it started. Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Lester G. Nauhaus sent jurors home early because of a winter storm.
Attorneys for Melvin and Orie and prosecutors delivered opening statements, and testimony is scheduled to begin on Monday. The trial is expected to last for four weeks.
Only one state Supreme Court justice was ever removed from office; none has gone to prison.
Melvin and Orie are accused of using the justice's then-Superior Court staff and equipment to campaign for her seat on the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009.
Melvin faces seven charges, including four felonies; Orie faces four charges, including one felony. Both pleaded not guilty to all charges.
A grand jury report in May called the charges a “tale of corruption” that Melvin “actively condoned and even promoted.” The report said Melvin and her staff used personal email accounts to shield the addresses that generated messages, hiding political activities that were handled by the staffers on state payroll.
The report also accused Melvin of firing Lisa Sasinoski, a former law clerk and wife of Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, when she complained about doing campaign work on state time.
Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus said Melvin's staffers completed their official duties but also had to do campaign-related tasks, such as driving her to a fundraiser or compiling donor lists.
Throughout opening statements, Melvin and Orie sat quietly at the defendants' desk in the courtroom on the third floor of the Allegheny County Courthouse.
Their father, John, sat in the audience beside Melvin's husband, Greg.
The trial will have statewide implications, said University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff.
“If she's found guilty, it would be pretty dire for Melvin personally. Beyond her, it would be another example and hopefully another message to people who are elected or appointed government officials that they aren't above the law,” Burkoff said. “If she's found to be innocent, it is a different kind of message. It would be a message to prosecutors and criminal investigators to be careful when they bring charges like this.”
Rolf Larsen is the only state Supreme Court justice to be removed from office. Larsen was convicted and impeached in 1994 for conspiring to obtain anti-anxiety drugs through prescriptions written in the names of court employees. He served two years of probation.
Brier said Melvin's Superior Court office spent less money in 2003 and 2009 than in non-election years, and the justice wrote more opinions those years than the majority of her colleagues.
“Justice Joan Orie Melvin was a highly productive member of the Pennsylvania Superior Court,” Brier said.
Judicial staffers who perform campaign work are not breaking the law; they're just violating a workplace rule, said Janine Orie's defense attorney James DePasquale.
Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University, said those charges are not a “big deal.”
“The fact that prosecutors can find some political activity done on public time is not a big deal to me. You just don't want it to get out of hand. And if staff members are fired because they don't do political work, that is a problem,” Ledewitz said.
Janine Orie initially went to trial in a joint case with another sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, in 2011, but the case ended in a mistrial when prosecutors accused Jane Orie of submitting falsified documents to the court. Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. retried Jane Orie separately, and a jury convicted her in March of 14 of the 24 counts against her. She is serving 2 1⁄2 to 10 years in prison.
Melvin has been suspended from the high court since May 18. The state Court of Judicial Discipline halted her $195,309 annual salary in August.
Ledewitz said that if the evidence shows “technical violations” and the jury acquits anyway, that will show that jurors are “not impressed, to leave the small potatoes stuff alone, that it's not worth the time to prosecute.
“If it seems like it's nitpicking, they'll acquit her,” he said.
Jane Orie's former chief of staff Jamie Pavlot, a crucial witness for the prosecution in the former legislator's trial, will be among the first to take the witness stand.