State Supreme Court Justice Melvin, sister found guilty on almost all counts
Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin stared emotionless on Thursday as the jury foreman read aloud six guilty verdicts against her, likely ending the North Hills Republican’s political and judicial career.
Although the jury deadlocked on one charge of official oppression, Melvin, 56, of Marshall likely will be stripped of duties and lose her pension for misusing state-paid employees to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009.
“It’s a sad day for the court,” said state Supreme Court Justice Debra Todd of Butler County. “Anytime a judge or justice is found guilty of wrongdoing, it leaves a stain on the judiciary. I hope we can demonstrate to the public that we deserve their confidence and trust.”
The jury found Melvin’s sister and former administrative assistant Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless guilty on all six of the counts she faced. The jury deliberated for 18 hours over four days.
“The word ‘acquittal’ never came up” during deliberations, said jury foreman Matt Mabon, 22, of Whitehall.
“I really can’t say we were split. It was that, just as a group, we didn’t know what happened. There was a lot more direct evidence against Janine than there was against the justice,” he said. “I told (the other jurors), ‘Let’s go with the facts.’ ”
Sheriff’s deputies cleared the hall and formed a human wall outside the courtroom as the sisters left with their attorneys. Janine Orie cried as they exited the Allegheny County Courthouse and got into a black Land Rover waiting on Fifth Avenue.
Melvin’s husband, Greg Melvin, was not in the courtroom and did not return a call seeking comment. One of their six children, Casey, was in the courtroom when the jury announced its verdict but didn’t react or comment.
Melvin’s attorney, Patrick A. Casey, would not answer questions from reporters as he left.
“She’s on trial for a month, she’s had this thing over her head for three years. She’s devastated,” said Orie’s attorney, James DePasquale, adding that he likely will file an appeal.
“This jury, having sat in a court of law, heard the truth about the defendant’s conduct and has made it absolutely clear that no one is above the law irrespective of title or status,” said District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr.
His office accused the sisters of conspiring to use Melvin’s then-Superior Court employees and the employees of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, for political work. The former senator is serving 2 1 / 2 to 10 years in prison on similar charges.
Prosecutors would not comment on a potential sentence for Melvin or Orie.
The state Supreme Court suspended Melvin on May 18, and the state Court of Judicial Discipline halted her $195,309 annual salary in August.
“The conviction of Justice Melvin shows that no public official is above the law,” said Gov. Tom Corbett’s spokeswoman, Janet Kelley.
Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Department of State, said Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus could remove Melvin from the court during sentencing — which he has yet to schedule. The Court of Judicial Discipline could remove her, or the Legislature could impeach her.
Once a vacancy occurs, the governor has 90 days to appoint a replacement. The appointment requires Senate approval, Ruman said. The appointee would serve until January 2016, and an election for a justice would occur in November 2015.
Robert Graci, chief counsel for the state’s Judicial Conduct Board, which filed a complaint against Melvin, said the verdict starts a 30-day window during which she must respond to charges of misconduct. If the court determines there is proof against her, a proceeding will be held to determine whether she’s guilty and the court can reprimand her or remove her from the bench.
“If these convictions are upheld, I think she will lose her pension,” said John Burkoff, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh who monitored the case.
Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus called 24 witnesses during the trial that began on Jan. 25. Key among the prosecution’s witnesses were Jamie Pavlot, Jane Orie’s former chief of staff; former Melvin chief law clerk Lisa Sasinoski; and a half-dozen former employees who told jurors they spent countless hours performing campaign-related work. Detective Jackelyn Weibel calculated the amount of money paid to state employees for performing political work at $33,475.
Melvin’s three-lawyer defense team, which called about a dozen witnesses over four days, said her staff got all of its work done and her chambers did not expend any more resources during the 2003 and 2009 election years than it did during non-election years. They also said Melvin was not aware of any political work being done on state-paid time.
DePasquale said the time staffers spent on political work was insignificant and did not amount to criminal prosecution.
“The justice’s defense counsel actually did a very good job, and we didn’t really know what was going to happen until it happened,” Burkoff said. “In the end, clearly, the jury dismissed the basic thrust of the defense’s argument that she was getting all her work done and she didn’t have any time to do other work. They just didn’t believe it.”
Melvin, whom voters elected to the high court in 2009, is the second sitting Supreme Court Justice to be convicted of a crime. Justice Rolf Larsen was charged in 1993 with illegally obtaining prescription drugs. A jury convicted him in 1994 of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription medications for him for depression. Claus was the prosecutor on that case as well.
Melvin worked as the chief magistrate for Pittsburgh before joining the Common Pleas Court. She was elected to Superior Court in 1997.
The Republican Orie family has called Zappala’s prosecution a political vendetta because the prosecutor’s father — former Supreme Court Chief Justice Stephen Zappala — and sister had ties to the gambling industry, an enterprise Jane Orie scrutinized during her tenure in the Legislature. Zappala, a Democrat, denied those accusations.
Todd said she and her colleagues on the Supreme Court “will do everything in our power to restore the public trust in the judiciary.”
Staff writer Brad Bumsted contributed to this report. Adam Brandolph and Bobby Kerlikare staff writers for Trib Total Media.