Claiming to be innocent on all nine criminal charges, Pa. Supreme Justice Joan Orie Melvin nonetheless voluntarily stepped away from official duties Friday. If she is convicted she will be only the second Justice ever to be removed from the Court, and the first in 2 decades.
Following Justice Orie Melvin’s voluntary recusal, the PA Judicial Conduct Board moved to officially suspend her.
The Justice faces several charges, including abuse of state funds – though she remains on the state payroll.
The cases upon which Orie Melvin and the Court have already ruled are unlikely to be affected by the outcome of the case. Orie is a Republican Justice in a Court that had been split 4 to 3 in Republicans’ favor. Now, the Court lacks the ability to overturn law (but can still confirm it).
Regardless of the outcome of the trial, the mere fact that such charges have been levied, and the way the trials are conducted, may be enough to change how Pennsylvania voters view the institutions they have been trusting to deal out justice.
Orie Melvin: “Not Guilty”
The accusations Justice Orie Melvin has to fight against are serious. They consist of no fewer than nine criminal charges related to abusing state funds and state funded resources to further her campaigns for office.
The grand jury presentment suggests that “Justice Orie Melvin [was] directly and knowingly involved in using state paid staffers from both the judicial and legislative branches of the Pennsylvania government,” using both her and her sister’s resources.
The Justice’s response to the charges has been to voluntarily suspend herself, while continuing to claim her innocence, and to accuse her opposition of seeking to serve political goals.
“I entered a plea of not guilty today and I will vigorously defend these politically motivated charges,” she said. “The voters overwhelmingly sent me to the Supreme Court and I will not resign because of these politically motivated charges.”
The major force behind the investigation is Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen Zappala, Jr., a Democrat whose father and sister lead the Pennsylvania Casino Association. The Ories claim they are the victims of a political vendetta; Orie Melvin’s sister, Senator Jane Orie, has a history of opposing legalized gambling.
But the charges against Orie Melvin came, as they did against Senator Orie, after Zappala guided the case through a grand jury. Add that to the fact that Senator Orie was found guilty on 14 counts, and it appears that Zappala is on firm ground.
Precedent for Impeachment
Justice Orie Melvin’s potential predecessor-in-impeachment is Justice Rolf Larsen, who, in a struggle against depression and anxiety, illegally used prescriptions made out in the names of staff members to obtain tranquilizers and anti-depressants. That was in 1993.
In the case of Larsen, Judge Frank J. Montemuro Jr was already serving temporarily in the court, due to the death of another Justice. When Larsen was removed, Montemuro simply became his replacement. In Orie Melvin’s case, if she is convicted, it is likely that the Governor will nominate a new Justice for the State Senate’s approval. One possibility is that a senior judge on the Superior Court will be temporarily reassigned to the State Supreme Court.