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Judge sends Melvin jury home for the weekend

| Friday, Feb. 8, 2013, 10:52 a.m.

The number of opinions that Joan Orie Melvin's Superior Court staff churned out in her election years indicates her employees were too busy with judicial matters to work on her campaigns for state Supreme Court, her attorneys argued Friday.

The records from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts became the central issue in a short 11th day in the trial of the suspended Supreme Court justice and her sister and former staffer Janine Orie.

Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus has yet to rule on whether he'll allow the records as evidence. He hinted that he'll allow the defense to submit a summary of the record when the trial resumes on Monday.

“These records show they were consistently getting their work done,” Melvin's defense attorney Donna Walsh said.

Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus said the records don't indicate the quality of the opinions, whether the state Supreme Court overturned them, or the length of the opinions.

Melvin, 56, of Marshall and Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless are charged with using the senate employees of a third sister and Melvin's judicial employees and office equipment in her bid for the high court in 2003 and 2009. Prosecutors valued the theft of services at $33,475. Both contend they are not guilty.

The Supreme Court suspended Melvin on May 18, and the state Court of Judicial Discipline halted her $195,309 annual salary in August.

Walsh said the evidence shows Melvin's chambers were as productive as most other Superior Court chambers, if not more so.

Nauhaus described the documents, a monthly breakdown of judicial opinions, as “mind-numbing.”

“All it is, is numbers and nothing else,” he said.

Defense attorneys tried to poke holes in the testimony of Melvin's former chief law clerk Lisa Sasinoski, who said she was fired on Dec. 8, 2003, after complaining of politicking in the office.

Wayne Raum, director of the Pennsylvania State Employees' Retirement System member services division, told jurors that Sasinoski remained on the payroll until Dec. 29, 2003, when she was placed on maternity leave status for six days. She began working for Melvin's political rival, Supreme Court Justice Max Baer of Mt. Lebanon, on Jan. 5, 2004.

Sasinoski, 55, of O'Hara, the wife of Common Pleas Judge Kevin G. Sasinoski, testified last week that she was not pregnant at the time.

Melvin's defense attorneys say the state system used the maternity leave status as a bridge to Sasinoski's employment with Baer, indicating she resigned from her job and was not fired. Raum said the maternity leave allowed Sasinoski to keep her benefits and vacation days between jobs.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, who has called for Melvin to resign from the high court, said Raum's testimony undermines what Sasinoski told the jury about being fired and, in turn, “places a cloud of doubt over her entire testimony.”

Retired Superior Court President Judge Joseph Del Sole testified that Sasinoski's departure from Melvin's office was “not a termination.”

Brandolph and Kerlik are staff writers for Trib Total Media. Brandolph can be reached at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com. Kerlik can be reached at 412-320-7886 or bkerlik@tribweb.com.

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