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Decision to withhold Melvin's pay pending trial a rare move

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin speaks to reporters outside Pittsburgh Municipal Court after a hearing in May on charges she illegally used her state-funded staff to perform campaign work. AP
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Tuesday, Sept. 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
 

The state Court of Judicial Discipline employed an infrequently used but constitutionally supported sanction when it decided last week to withhold suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's salary until her trial on corruption charges, experts said.

“Suspending a judge without pay is rare, but it's something we see all the time in other jobs,” said Philadelphia attorney Mark Rosen. “With the judiciary, it's an available sanction. It's just not often used.”

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. She pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In May, Melvin announced she was voluntarily recusing herself from any activity on the Supreme Court, the same day fellow justices suspended her with pay, ordered her office vacated, her staff sent home and her files and equipment secured.

Melvin's attorney, William “Skip” Arbuckle, said the decision “highlights the difficulty in making credibility decisions using a transcript rather than live witnesses.”

“That said, we respect the decision for what it is: an interim order and an interim order only.”

President Judge Robert E.J. Curran acknowledged that there are more cases in which the court has imposed an interim suspension without pay but disagreed that it had any bearing on Melvin's case.

“What (that) signifies is that this court has been reluctant to suspend without pay and has been careful to do so only in the most egregious cases,” he said. “We decide these cases one by one and we act on the totality of the circumstances as we see it in each case.”

Melvin will continue to receive medical benefits.

There are only a few cases in the court's 19-year history in which judges were suspended without pay. They include:

• Former state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen in October 1993. The high court in 1993 removed Larsen months before an Allegheny County jury convicted him of conspiracy for having a state employee buy prescription drugs for his depression.

• Former Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph Jaffe in January 2003. He pleaded guilty to extorting $13,000 from an attorney who had 1,300 cases pending in Jaffe's courtroom. Jaffe used the money to pay off country club fees, medical bills and other debts.

Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, said he hopes the decision will put economic pressure on Melvin, forcing her to resign from the high court, which has been hampered by having just six justices.

“I'm personally hoping this will force her off the bench; otherwise the (Supreme) Court will remain stymied,” Ledewitz said.

Without a conviction, Melvin can only be removed by the state Legislature or her resignation, he said.

Melvin will be tried with her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless, who is charged with directing campaign work in Melvin's judicial office and in the office of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie. A pre-trial conference is scheduled for Sept. 14. A trial date has not been set.

The family of Republicans has called the prosecution of the Orie sisters politically motivated, a claim that Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a Democrat, denies. Jane Orie is serving 2 12 to 10 years in prison for her conviction on similar charges.

Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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