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Calls continue to mount for Orie sister to leave bench after testimony

| Monday, March 5, 2012

State court experts and critics reiterated calls Sunday for State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin to step aside because of what one observer called stunning testimony in the corruption trial of sister Sen. Jane Orie this weekend.

The prosecution's key witness in the case testified for the first time that Melvin helped direct the removal of political material from the senator's office. A public charge such as that carries much larger ramifications for the state's highest court than reports that a justice is under investigation, said John Burkoff, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law. Burkoff and two state reform advocates said Melvin should recuse herself from the court until this case ends.

Melvin, 55, of Marshall and her attorney, J. Alan Johnson, could not be reached for comment yesterday. She has not been charged with any crime but has been notified that she is a target of an Allegheny County grand jury investigation. She has not publicly commented on the case.

"Mere suspicion and the possibility of being tied to criminal conduct is one thing. But testimony like this under oath about her conduct is serious stuff," Burkoff said in an email from Spain, where he is teaching. "Certainly at this point Justice Melvin's continuing participation in Supreme Court matters casts a cloud over all of the Court's deliberations."

The testimony was stunning because of how damaging it could be to her, said David Harris, also a Pitt law professor. But the way it was revealed could undermine the witness, Jamie Pavlot, and the prosecution's case, Harris added. Pavlot didn't mention it during the first Orie trial and said on the stand that she suddenly recalled the November 2009 conversation with Melvin after court on Friday.

"She's obviously been through the questioning, the sequences over and over again, not only in her testimony but in the trial preparation process, and this never came back to her," Harris said. "So, they're going to use this not only to attack this particular assertion, but to attack her credibility as a whole."

Harris declined to comment on what Melvin should do about her Supreme Court work.

Melvin, 55, of Marshall has removed herself from hearing Allegheny County criminal cases while on the bench. County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. charged two of her sisters, Sen. Orie and Melvin aide Janine Orie, with using state-paid staff to campaign on state time for the senator and for Melvin.

Testimony in the trial of 50-year-old Jane Orie, R-McCandless, is to resume today. Janine Orie, 57, also of McCandless, will be tried separately.

Melvin was elected to the Supreme Court in November 2009 and took office in January 2010. Pavlot testified the conversation happened just after Melvin's election.

The Ories have claimed the investigation by Zappala, a Democrat, is politically motivated.

"This surprising testimony doesn't change our position," Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, wrote in emailed comments calling for Melvin to step down temporarily or for the court to suspend her. "All citizens, including judges, are presumed innocent until proven guilty, but judges and especially supreme court justices should not be permitted to judge others while under the cloud of such a serious investigation."

James Koval, spokesman for the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, said the justices could not be reached for comment and that he cannot speak for the court about this case.

Government reform activist Gene Stilp, who has called for Melvin's resignation, said the testimony is one more reason for Melvin to step down.

"The prosecutors and presentments have laid out an entire road map on where (the state Judicial Conduct Board) should be investigating," Stilp said by phone from Harrisburg. "This is another clear landmark on the road map. There's enough for the court to ask her to step down from participating in the court matters."

He said the board last month accepted his third formal complaint about Melvin. Officials at the board could not be reached.

A spokesman for Gov. Tom Corbett and Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate either declined comment or did not respond to requests for comment.

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