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Melvin defense witnesses say workload proves no politicking by staff

| Tuesday, Feb. 12, 2013, 12:27 p.m.

Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's lawyers will need to rely on witnesses to rebut corruption charges instead of statistics they say would strike at the heart of the prosecution's case.

Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus ruled on Tuesday that data showing Melvin's higher Superior Court workload in election years 2003 and 2009 — when prosecutors say her staff spent time doing political work — are not relevant to her trial.

Defense attorney Patrick Casey argued that the statistics challenge the credibility of key prosecution witness Lisa Sasinoski, Melvin's former chief law clerk in 2003. Sasinoski said she spent large parts of her day doing political work for Melvin.

“The challenge is getting a fair trial in this case,” Casey said.

“I have bent over backwards to give your client a fair trial,” Nauhaus responded. “I'm offended.”

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 campaigns for the high court. Both contend they are not guilty.

Prosecutors value the theft of services at $33,475.

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

Nauhaus' ruling put more weight on the testimony of five defense witnesses, who said they saw no political work done by state-paid staffers.

Robert Woods, a former law clerk for Melvin and chief law clerk for Superior Court Judge Sallie Mundy, told the jury on Tuesday that the workload in Melvin's office was “steady” and “busy,” including the 2009 election year.

“We prided ourselves to be at or near the top,” Woods said.

He testified that nobody asked him to do political work and that he didn't see political work occurring in the office.

The judge's decision not to allow the evidence might be the right one, said Villanova University law professor Anne Poulin, because it's too difficult to measure the amount of work just by how many cases Melvin's chambers completed.

“On the surface it's misleading,” said Poulin, who is not involved in the case. “The office's productivity in these terms doesn't really tell us how much time the staffers were putting in.”

Casey, though, argued the statistics strike at the “very heart” of the prosecution's case.

“If the defendant's chambers was deciding cases in a timely fashion, it's evidence she was unaware of non-judicial work,” he said.

Cindy Kirk, a North Hills Republican committeewoman, testified that she collected signatures for petitions, put out political signs, worked the polls and drove people to the polls in 2003 and 2009. She said she never met any of Melvin's judicial staffers other than her sister, Janine Orie.

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

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