Reform vow, legal career lifted Melvin to high court
Justice Joan Orie Melvin persuaded voters to put her on Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court with her message of reform and a distinguished legal career.
That fell apart on Friday when Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. accused her of trading judicial principles for political victories. Her fellow justices moved swiftly to ban her from hearing cases and shuttered her Downtown office.
Melvin, 56, pleaded not guilty to using state employees for campaign work andrefused to resign.
“I’m a woman of faith. … My faith will see me through this,” she said.
A Republican charged by a Democratic prosecutor, Melvin vowed to fight what she called a “politically motivated” case.
Zappala’s office said a grand jury, not politics, prompted the first charges against a state Supreme Court justice in nearly 20 years. The court in 1993 removed Justice Rolf Larsen months before an Allegheny County jury convicted him of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription drugs for his depression.
Melvin’s suspension disappointed lawyers and taxpayers and leaves the court split with three Democrats and three Republicans.
“This is a sad day for the justice system in Pennsylvania,” said John E. Savoth, chancellor of the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association. “The charges against Justice Orie Melvin cast a shadow on the court that compromises the ability for justice to be dispensed fairly. We cannot have a sitting justice who has been indicted.”
“I’ve lost all faith in her,” said Bud Yenke, 73, of McCandless, who voted for Melvin in 2009. “Politicians have been doing what she’s accused of doing for years. It’s not uncommon, but the fact is, it’s still against the law.”
A mother of five daughters and one son, Melvin had been a judge for 25 years when she rose to the state’s highest court by winning 53 percent of the vote. She defeated Superior Court Judge Jack Panella, a Democrat, who received more votes in 11 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties, including Allegheny.
“This had been her lifelong dream. She finally reached where she wanted to go,” Melvin’s brother, Jack Orie, told the Tribune-Review recently. “She has always wanted to help people.”
Many opinions that Melvin wrote for the court’s majority were tough on convicts appealing lengthy prison sentences. Yet her highest-profile work came during her first month on the job in the form of a legal drubbing from Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille.
Melvin disagreed with the court’s decision to seal a complaint against former Luzerne County Common Pleas Judge Michael Conahan, convicted of taking bribes to place children in a private detention home owned by a contractor. Castille called Melvin’s dissenting opinion “a demonstrably off-point response” — an unusually pointed response from a chief justice who has scolded lawyers for using “intemperate language.”
“Being dragged off the court, kicking and screaming, seems totally inconsistent with what she has been standing for to get to the court,” said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University professor.
Ledewitz, who repeatedly has suggested Melvin should step down, said the charges further hurt the court’s image — battered by its decision to allow more than 1,000 state judges to keep a controversial 2005 pay raise, by Castille’s ties to a now-scrapped no-bid contract to build Philadelphia’s family court complex and by Larsen’s removal.
Melvin grew up in a family of siblings who became active in law or politics under the tutelage of their father, Dr. John Orie, 90, of McCandless. Two years after an appointment as a magistrate in 1985, she became the chief judge for Pittsburgh Municipal Courts, in which she said she created the state’s first domestic violence court.
In 1990, then-Gov. Robert P. Casey tapped Melvin to fill a Common Pleas Court vacancy when Judge Donald J. Lee resigned. She ran successfully in 1991 for a 10-year term, then won a Superior Court seat in 1997.
One of Melvin’s 2009 campaign ads for the Supreme Court highlighted her record of upholding “tough sentences on drug dealers, sexual predators and hardened criminals.” Another said she brought “the highest ethical standards and integrity” to her work.
She routinely told audiences during the campaign that she was a finalist for a seat on the U.S. 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals, a process that required her to pass an FBI examination of her social life and career. She touted an endorsement from fellow Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, then the state attorney general.
“If you do not have the public’s confidence or the public’s trust in the judiciary, it cannot operate,” Melvin told a GOP gathering in April 2009.