Judge combines trials of Justice Joan Orie Melvin, sister Janine Orie
State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin and her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, will face trial on corruption charges together, an Allegheny County judge ordered on Thursday.
Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning said in a 17-page memorandum that neither Orie nor Melvin would be negatively impacted by having their cases tried together. For charges that do not overlap, a jury can follow instructions that evidence against one could not be considered against the other, he said.
In a separate order, Manning reassigned the case to Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, a former criminal division judge who has spent the past 2 1⁄2 years in Orphan's Court. Citing the late state Superior Court Judge Donald E. Wieand, Manning said the reassignment is meant to show the “courage and integrity” of the judiciary.
“Recusal by this court was not warranted in these matters, and this reassignment should not be construed as a recusal,” Manning wrote.
Melvin's lawyers twice asked Manning to step aside because he presided over the trial of former state Sen. Jane Orie, the defendants' sister. Also, Lisa Sasinoski, a prosecution witness, is the wife of Common Pleas Judge Kevin Sasinoski.
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said combining the cases was not a surprise because they share common factors and witnesses. But the reassignment to Nauhaus “is a really pleasant surprise.”
“Judge Nauhaus is widely respected as an excellent criminal trial judge. It may well be an assignment that these two defendants will be pleased about because before he became a judge, Judge Nauhaus was on the criminal defense side for decades. He certainly understands the kind of arguments these defendants will be making,” Burkoff said.
Janine Orie's attorney, James DePasquale, welcomed the change.
“If you gave me a list of judges and told me to pick one, I'm sure he'd be in the top three,” DePasquale said.
Melvin, 56, of Marshall faces seven charges, including four felonies, that she used her taxpayer-funded Superior Court staff illegally to campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Melvin pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless is charged with directing campaign work in Melvin's judicial office and in the office of Jane Orie.
Janine Orie initially went to trial in a joint case with Jane Orie in 2011, but the case ended in a mistrial after prosecutors accused Jane Orie of submitting falsified documents to the court. Jane Orie was retried separately. A jury convicted her in March, and she is serving 2 1⁄2 to 10 years in prison.
The request to combine Melvin's and Janine Orie's cases came from Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, who argued that the majority of the charges against both women are based on the same acts.
The Orie family, which is Republican, has called the prosecution of the sisters politically motivated, a claim that District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a Democrat, denies.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.