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Suspended state Justice Joan Orie Melvin to resign

| Monday, March 25, 2013, 11:36 a.m.

HARRISBURG — Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on Monday said she would voluntarily resign on May 1, prompting experts to question whether she is trying to get a more lenient sentence on six criminal counts.

An Allegheny County judge is scheduled to sentence Melvin, 56, of Marshall on May 7 for theft of services, conspiracy and misappropriating state property.

In a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, Melvin offered her resignation “with deep regret and a broken heart.” She promoted her work as a jurist, including on Superior Court and in Allegheny County, and said she saved tax dollars through means such as refusing the perk of a state-paid vehicle.

Her lawyer likely will raise such arguments at sentencing, said John Burkoff, a law school professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“I think she understood that the writing was on the wall,” Burkoff said.

Chief Justice Ronald Castille called it “a sad day” for the court. Castille told the Pennsylvania Press Club that filling a vacancy on the court is key to its ability to resolve pending major cases.

He said the justices could appoint an interim member, but experts said it's more likely they would allow the governor to do so, to avoid a legal spat. The court has three Democrats and three Republicans without Melvin.

Corbett said Melvin's decision “will save taxpayers the time and expense of impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate, and allow legislators to focus on other important issues.''

Corbett, a Republican, has 90 days from May 1 to submit a nominee to the Senate, where a two-thirds vote is required for approval. Republicans control the Senate 27-23.

Voters would elect a successor in November 2015.

Because Corbett needs bipartisan support, his nominee likely won't be from the far-right of the political spectrum, officials said.

Allegheny County Republican Committee Chairman Jim Roddey said he has heard three names: former Attorney General Linda Kelly; DEP Secretary Mike Krancer, who announced Friday he is stepping down; and Corbett's chief of staff, Steve Aichele.

Melvin's resignation letter contained issues that perplexed legal experts and court officials. It wasn't clear, for example, why she chose May 1.

“Why delay this another month?” said Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County, who suggested she resign immediately after the February jury verdict. “My only guess is that this was a painful thing to do and that she picked (May 1) for emotional, more than legal or practical reasons,” Burkoff said.

The court suspended Melvin on May 18. The state Court of Judicial Discipline halted her $195,309 annual salary in August. A mother of six, Melvin kept health care benefits, the court confirmed.

That might be why she decided to stay another month, said Rep. Glen Grell, R-Mechanicsburg, who would have led an impeachment effort.

The disciplinary court was considering a complaint against Melvin but will delay its proceedings until after sentencing in the criminal case.

A jury found Melvin guilty of misusing state-paid employees to campaign for her seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. The jury convicted her sister and former court aide, Janine Orie of McCandless. Another sister, former Sen. Jane Orie, R-McCandless, is serving prison time for using her staff for her own and Melvin's campaigns and for forging documents to cover it up.

“It is my fervent hope that my service over the past three decades will not be tainted by the circumstances surrounding my departure,” Melvin wrote. “I continue to take great pride in the work that I did.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Brad Bumsted and Adam Brandolph are staff writers forTrib Total Media. Reach Bumsted at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com. Reach Brandolph at 412-391-0927 or abrandolph@tribweb.com.

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