Scrutiny of justices casts pall over Pennsylvania Supreme Court
HARRISBURG — In an auditorium packed with judges, lawyers and lawmakers, Justice Joan Orie Melvin took the oath of office Jan. 8 for the state Supreme Court and then blistered the court system in a speech that called for ending “backroom deals, pay raises, public corruption and scandals in the judiciary.”
Six other justices sat stone-faced, some fidgeting on stage and shuffling papers, as Orie Melvin unleashed what many observers said was an unprecedented indictment of the court system she was joining at the highest level.
Three months later, an Allegheny County grand jury recommended criminal charges against her sisters, state Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, and Janine Orie, an employee of Melvin’s, accusing them of doing campaign work with state employees and resources to help Orie Melvin win her seat in November.
Orie Melvin, a Republican and former Superior Court judge from Marshall, may be a target of the grand jury the Orie family claims is a politically motivated investigation by Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a Democrat. Zappala, son of former Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala Sr., denies those allegations.
Orie Melvin has not been charged. “They’ll try anything they can,” said attorney Jack Orie, their brother, when asked whether he believes she will be indicted. “There is no evidence to charge Joan with anything.”
The man who swore Orie Melvin into office, Chief Justice Ronald Castille, is ensnared in controversy over $12 million spent so far in fees, without bids, on the Family Court building in Center City Philadelphia. The Philadelphia Inquirer reported the project is under FBI investigation; the Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News urged Castille to resign.
“I don’t think the chief is going to respond,” spokesman Stuart Ditzen said. Castille hired a Washington consultant — a former assistant of Castille’s when he was district attorney for Philadelphia — to issue a report on the project for which one attorney collected fees from the court and the developer, the Inquirer reported.
The situations of Orie Melvin and Castille have “the makings of a legal and political storm that could eventually rock the highest judicial institution in the state,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown.
“When a Supreme Court justice is enmeshed in a controversy like this, it certainly does cast negativity on the court as a whole and its reputation,” Borick said.
Orie Melvin “is going to sit there and make every decision,” said Jack Orie, although he said she cannot hear cases involving the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.
“If they had had any evidence against Joan, it would have been in the last grand jury presentment,” he said. Even an indictment — though he claims there’s no evidence — would not remove her from office, he said, noting: “An indictment is just an allegation.” The only way she could be removed would be through impeachment and conviction, he said.
An impeachment of a state Supreme Court justice occurred in 1994. A jury convicted Justice Rolf Larsen of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription medications for him for depression. The House, which acts as the prosecutor, issued seven impeachment charges. The Senate had the two-thirds vote needed to sustain only one charge, improper communication. Larsen was removed from office.
G. Terry Madonna, a political science professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, said the questions surrounding Castille’s and Orie Melvin’s situations — combined with a legislative corruption investigation that charged more than two dozen people with using public resources for campaigns — underscore a need for independent oversight of legislative and judicial spending.
He believes the state auditor general should have authority to audit the judiciary and Legislature. Currently, the auditor general, an independent elected official, can audit executive branch agencies.
Auditor General Jack Wagner hasn’t decided whether to audit the court building project, his spokesman Steve Halvonik said. The law’s prohibition “may or may not prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to our involvement,” he said.