Orie Melvin headed to trial on seven of nine charges
Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin will stand trial on charges that she illegally used her taxpayer-funded staff when she was a Superior Court judge to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and again in 2009.
District Judge James J. Hanley Jr. on Tuesday ordered Melvin, 56, of Marshall to face trial on seven of nine counts recommended by a grand jury, including theft of services, conspiracy, solicitation to tamper or fabricate evidence and official oppression. The decision resulted from two days of testimony in a preliminary hearing in Pittsburgh Municipal Court. Melvin, a Republican, has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Only one Supreme Court Justice has been removed from office. Justice Rolf Larsen, a Democrat, was convicted and impeached in 1994 for conspiring to obtain anti-anxiety drugs through prescriptions written in the names of court employees. He served two years of probation.
Melvin declined comment as she left the courtroom. Her attorney, Daniel Brier, said the preliminary hearing was the defense's first opportunity to put the charges up to judicial scrutiny.
“We will have additional opportunities to challenge the remaining counts, which we believe will not withstand strict application of the law,” Brier said.
Hanley dismissed one count of official oppression and one count of criminal solicitation, saying there was not enough evidence to support those charges.
A formal arraignment is scheduled for Aug. 14. Melvin is scheduled to appear the same day before the state Court of Judicial Discipline in Harrisburg, which will determine whether she will continue to receive her $195,309 salary.
Melvin's team of attorneys throughout the course of the hearing tried to distance the justice from accusations she used members of her staff and employees of her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie of McCandless, for campaign work. Her lawyers instead noted that it was primarily a third sister, Janine Orie, who directed the employees to do campaign work on state time.
An Allegheny County jury in March convicted Jane Orie of similar charges. She's serving 2 1⁄2 to 10 years in prison. Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless will go to trial later this month on charges of theft of services, tampering with evidence, criminal solicitation and conspiracy based on allegations that she directed the illegal work.
Defense attorneys spent much of Tuesday morning attempting to show that Janine Orie was not Melvin's campaign manager performing political work while she was getting paid as a judicial office manager. Additionally, they pointed to Melvin and Janine Orie's use of personal email accounts when discussing campaign issues.
Tracy Kolich Hall, executive director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, testified she was in daily contact via email and later by phone with Janine Orie during the workday, but much of the statewide campaign work was performed by a private consultant.
“You couldn't schedule something for the judge politically until you were sure you weren't conflicting with the judicial calendar, right?” Brier said.
“Yes,” Hall said.
Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus called three staffers who worked in Melvin's chambers and four former employees of Jane Orie, including Jamie Pavlot, the senator's former chief of staff.
When questioned about who gave her orders, Pavlot said the senator officially was her boss, but it was more complicated than that: “The dynamics of this family is, when you're working for one member, you're taking orders from all three,” Pavlot said.
Melvin, wearing a pink jacket with black accents, a black skirt and blouse, for the second day sat away from the desk behind her attorneys with her daughter, Casey, 24.
A mother of five daughters and one son, Melvin had been a judge for 25 years when she rose to the state's highest court by winning 53 percent of the vote in 2009. She defeated Superior Court Judge Jack Panella, a Democrat.
Her family has called the prosecution of her and her sisters politically motivated, claims District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. has denied.
Adam Brandolph is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-391-0927 or firstname.lastname@example.org.