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State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin hit with four felonies

| Friday, May 18, 2012, 9:46 p.m.
Justice Joan Orie Melvin, center, makes a statement to the media after leaving municipal court in Pittsburgh Friday, May 18, 2012. Heidi Murrin | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin defiantly ended nearly two years of silence on allegations that she used state staff for political work as a prosecutor on Friday filed nine criminal charges against the Marshall Republican and fellow justices barred her from hearing cases.

"I entered a plea of not guilty today, and I will vigorously defend these politically motivated charges," Melvin, 56, said outside Pittsburgh Municipal Court, flanked by her brother Jack Orie and daughter Casey Melvin. "The voters overwhelmingly sent me to the Supreme Court, and I will not resign."

Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. filed the charges, including four felonies, based on a 75-page grand jury presentment. The grand jury voted on Thursday to charge the justice with theft of services, conspiracy, solicitation to tamper with or fabricate evidence, official oppression and misapplication of entrusted property.

Melvin is the third Orie sister whom Zappala, a Democrat, has charged with using state staff for political work. After a district judge released Melvin on her recognizance, she called it "another sad day for me and my family."

Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, who in March secured 14 convictions against state Sen. Jane Orie, denied politics played a role in the investigation.

"It's somewhat disappointing to hear the same old rhetoric," said Claus, who in 1994 prosecuted then-Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen in a conspiracy to obtain prescription drugs fraudulently.

Melvin's attorneys told Chief Justice Ronald Castille that she would step aside from judicial duties until the charges are resolved. A few hours later, the court relieved her of her duties and barred her from her Downtown office in order to secure court property. She will continue to collect her $195,309 annual salary.

"While the charges against Justice Melvin will be resolved in court, her arrest should serve as a reminder to public officials that no one is above the law," said Gov. Tom Corbett, a fellow Republican from Shaler.

Also yesterday, the state Judicial Conduct Board filed disciplinary charges against Melvin. It asked that she be suspended with pay pending a trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline on the allegations that her conduct violated the state Constitution and the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Melvin did not address the grand jury's report. It includes testimony from five current or former staffers, including former chief law clerk Lisa Sasinoski. They told the grand jury that the judge or her assistant -- her sister, Janine Orie -- directed them to do political work during 2003 and 2009 campaigns.

The tasks included writing speeches and thank-you notes to political donors, answering judicial campaign questionnaires, scheduling meet-and-greets with potential supporters, distributing campaign literature and working at polls on election days, and researching Melvin's legal opinions that would be favorable to specific groups.

The grand jury described how the Orie sisters worked together to use taxpayer-paid staffers for campaigns.

"It now appears that not only was Justice Orie Melvin directly and knowingly involved in using state-paid staffers from both the judicial and legislative branches of the Pennsylvania government in her political campaign activities, but it also appears that she was aided in those endeavors by two accomplices, co-conspirators and siblings -- Janine Mary Orie and Jane Clare Orie," the presentment states.

A jury convicted Jane Orie, a Republican state senator from McCandless, of misusing her state staff for campaign work and knowingly introducing forged documents as evidence during a trial.

Janine Orie, also of McCandless, is scheduled for trial in August on similar charges. Prosecutors said they might seek to join her case with Melvin's.

"Janine Orie is nothing more than collateral damage in this," said her attorney, James DePasquale.

Legislative leaders praised the Supreme Court's decision to suspend Melvin but said lawmakers should wait until jurors decide her criminal case before considering whether to impeach her. If that happens, the House would draft the impeachment and the Senate would vote.

"You and I and everybody else in this country have constitutional rights," said Rep. Tom Caltagirone of Reading, ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee. "Nobody really knows all the circumstances."

"This whole case does bring a cloud over the court, and you've got to stop it," said House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, the House prosecutor in a 1994 impeachment of Larsen, who served a year on probation in his criminal case.

A spokesman for Senate Republicans declined to comment.

"This is a very huge embarrassment for the Supreme Court because they have not moved forward on prosecuting her themselves through the Judicial Conduct Board," said Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg activist who lodged three complaints against Melvin with the board, the first two years ago.

James Koval, a court spokesman, said the board acts separately from the court.

Zappala's office raided Jane Orie's offices in the North Hills in December 2009 after her intern, Jennifer Knapp Rioja, complained about politicking.

"I should never have had to file the complaint that started all of this in the first place," Rioja wrote in an email. "If the allegations in the grand jury presentment are true, it's a sad day for Pennsylvania. It's shameful that any taxpayer money was diverted in order to further any one family's ambitions."

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