Judge defends Melvin's house arrest

| Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 11:19 p.m.

Prison might be easier, Allegheny County Judge Lester G. Nauhaus said, than the scrutiny he has in mind for former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

She cannot leave her home without his permission, except to attend church or fulfill her public service working in a soup kitchen. If she steps out of line, Nauhaus said on Wednesday, he's prepared to impose harsher punishment.

“I don't fool around,” Nauhaus told the Tribune-Review. “She will do what I tell her to do, or she'll come back and see me.”

Though he would not explain how he decided upon three years of house arrest and two subsequent years of probation, Nauhaus said he dislikes sentencing guidelines that lawmakers imposed on judges. He would not share letters he said people sent him on Melvin's behalf.

Reached on her cellphone, Melvin, 57, a Marshall Republican, declined comment.

Pat Danahey, chair of the township's Republican Committee, thinks her sentence is too harsh.

“I think she's being crucified for something I think is a small crime,” said Danahey, a retired North Allegheny Senior High School teacher.

Nauhaus bristled at suggestions that he gave Melvin a “slap on the wrist” compared with the 1 12 years behind bars that Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus requested on Tuesday.

Prison, Nauhaus said, would have been “the easiest sentence I could have given her.”

“She's not allowed to go out to eat, she's not allowed to see her father, she's not allowed to go to the beauty parlor, she's not allowed to go to her son's graduation. I don't know how anyone can say this is any different from prison,” he said. “The only difference is that taxpayers aren't paying for it.

“This way, I control her sentence 24 hours a day.”

As part of his plan to impose shame on Melvin, the judge immediately summoned her to his chambers, where a sheriff's deputy snapped her into handcuffs for a posed picture taken by county photographer Margaret Stanley.

Melvin must pay for 500 copies, sign them with the words “I'm sorry” and send them to every judge in Pennsylvania.

“She was stoic,” Nauhaus said of the awkward moment before the deputy and photographer. “She didn't say a word.”

His idea for the photograph was simply to show other judges “what happens when you do these kinds of things,” Nauhaus said.

“She put a taint on the judiciary, every member of the judiciary, and she needed to apologize to them,” he said.

A jury in February convicted Melvin of using her Superior Court office to campaign for a seat on the state Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009.

Her sentence includes paying a $55,000 fine, spending three days a week working in a soup kitchen and sending additional letters of apology to her family and former staffers.

Nauhaus, 69, a former criminal defense attorney from Squirrel Hill, said he'll require Melvin to seek his permission to leave her 3,600-square-foot home for any reason other than church or the soup kitchen — including a doctor's appointment.

He intends to review monthly reports about her house arrest and could modify her sentence if he doesn't like what he sees. If he thinks too many people are visiting Melvin, for example, he could limit the number permitted. He didn't specify how many visitors Melvin can have.

Melvin will pay $25 a day for an electronic monitoring bracelet she's required to wear during the house arrest, or about $27,375 over three years.

Asked about how he devised the sentence, Nauhaus said he felt it was what Melvin deserved.

“I think she got that,” he said.

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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