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State Supreme Court Justice Orie Melvin might 'want to fight until very end'

| Monday, March 4, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin enters the Allegheny County Courthouse on Jan. 25. A jury convicted her of corruption on Feb. 21. James Knox | Tribune-Review

HARRISBURG — Suspended Justice Joan Orie Melvin might relish the opportunity to “go down swinging” before a statewide audience in an impeachment proceeding, but she'll likely be booted from the state Supreme Court before that happens, a political scientist said.

“When elected officials see the writing on the wall, they usually look for a graceful exit,” said Christopher Borick, a professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “The history of the Orie family, in terms of wanting to go down swinging, might lead in a different direction. She may want to fight until the very end.”

Legal analysts think it unlikely Melvin will get the chance to swing at perceived persecutors in a Senate impeachment trial.

A jury on Feb. 21 convicted Melvin, 56, of Marshall and her sister and former aide Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless of using state resources for the justice's campaigns. Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus will sentence them on May 7.

A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, 51, a McCandless Republican, is serving a 2½- to 10-year prison term on similar corruption charges plus evidence tampering.

At the state Capitol, a House panel is gearing up for possible impeachment, but University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said lawmakers likely are leery of such a proceeding. The last such legislative effort impeached former Justice Rolf Larsen in 1994.

“The impeachment process is messy, complicated, time-consuming, expensive and potentially embarrassing to members of both political parties,” Burkoff said. “I think that the House members contemplating impeachment will do everything that they possibly can to try and leverage some other means — any other means — of hastening Justice Melvin's removal from the bench.

“They all know at this point that she's going, that she's leaving the court. The only questions remaining now are: how and when?”

Wes Oliver, a law professor at Duquesne University, said he believes the state constitution gives Nauhaus the ability to remove Melvin from the high court.

“It almost sounds like it's an automatic disqualification,” Oliver said of a felony conviction. “The question is who has the authority to sign the order.”

The Court of Judicial Discipline, which has the power to oust her, is moving forward with a case against Melvin.

She could resign voluntarily, with the hope of securing a lighter sentence, legal analysts say.

Borick wonders “what would happen on an appeal, and whether she could get a stay on the whole thing.”

Burkoff said the disciplinary court's ruling is “separate and distinct from the criminal appeal.”

Rep. Glen Grell, R-Mechanicsburg, in coming weeks will ask a panel he chairs to prepare an impeachment resolution for the Judiciary Committee and House to consider. The House must prepare for impeachment, no matter how remote the chances, Grell said.

Lemoyne defense attorney William Costopoulos, who represented Larsen, said he hopes it doesn't go that far.

“It should only be used in a last resort, in the most egregious of allegations,” said Costopoulos, who also represented Jane Orie.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont, a prosecutor in the Larsen impeachment, said that impeachment went forward because Larsen appealed his removal from the court by Allegheny County Judge Terrence O'Brien at sentencing. O'Brien sentenced Larsen to probation for his conspiracy conviction for having a doctor prescribe depression and anxiety medication to court employees in order to disguise his mental illness.

The House approved seven articles of impeachment in 1994. Dermody and others prosecuted at a trial before a six-member Senate committee. On Oct. 4, 1994, the Senate sustained a charge of improperly communicating with a trial judge and acquitted Larsen of the prescription drug count, despite his criminal court conviction.

Brad Bumsted is state Capitol reporter for the Tribune-Review. He can be reached at 717-787-1405 or bbumsted@tribweb.com.

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