PITTSBURGH – State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, stripped of her duties, vowed to fight the criminal charges filed against her Friday and stated she had no plans to quit Pennsylvania’s highest court.
“My faith will see me through this,” Melvin stated outside the Municipal Court Building. She denied what she called “these politically motivated charges.”
The charges brought by Allegheny County prosecutors involve use of taxpayer-paid staff for political campaigning – and are rooted in evidence that emerged in the case against Melvin’s sister, State Sen. Jane Orie, convicted in March of similar charges.
Melvin faces nine counts, including theft of services and conspiracy to tamper with evidence, all in connection with allegations that she made say employees perform campaign work on say time.
“I am a woman of faith,” Melvin, 56, stated after she was released without bond following a video arraignment. “My strong faith in God is the cornerstone of my life. My faith will see me through this.”
She repeated her contention that the charges amounted to a political vendetta. “I entered a plea of not guilty this day and I will vigorously defend these politically motivated charges,” she said. “The voters overwhelmingly sent me to the Supreme Court and I will not resign because of these politically motivated charges.”
According to the 75-page grand jury presentment, the charges cover a span beginning in 2003 and ending in 2009, when Melvin, then a Superior Court judge, was elected to the Supreme Court.
Though the high court promptly relieved Melvin of all judicial duties Friday, she did not resign her position and will continue to draw her $195,309 salary.
That prompted the 13,000-member Philadelphia Bar Association to say she should resign “immediately.”
“The charges against Justice Orie Melvin cast a shadow on the court that compromises the capability for justice to be dispensed fairly,” the association’s chancellor, John E. Savoth, stated in a statement. “We can’t have a sitting justice who has been indicted.”
Late Friday, the say Judicial Conduct Board stated it would file charges of its own against Melvin. Sanctions could follow if she is found to have violated the judicial code of ethics.
The grand jury presentment states Melvin “actively condoned and even promoted” campaign-related activity by say aides during her successful run for the high court in 2009.
Prosecutors also say Melvin and her staff used personal e-mail accounts to help hide political activities by judicial staffers.
A letter submitted Friday to Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille by one of Melvin’s attorneys stated she was stepping away from her duties voluntarily. Within hours, the high court issued its own order relieving her of those duties because of “the compelling and immediate need to protect and preserve the integrity” of the say court system.
Efforts to reach Castille for comment were unsuccessful.
In his letter to the chief justice, William I. Arbuckle III, who represents Melvin in a pending Judicial Conduct Board case, wrote: “In order to avoid the appearance of impropriety and in accordance with precedent, Justice Orie Melvin is voluntarily recusing herself from all judicial duties pending resolution of the criminal charges.”
Arbuckle added, “She is not resigning from the court. The justice denies any wrongdoing and will vigorously defend these politically motivated criminal charges.”
The Orie family’s long-standing contention that the case is a vendetta is rooted in the state’s venture into legalized casino gaming.
The family contends Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr., a Democrat, is motivated by Republican Jane Orie’s legislative opposition to the casino industry. Several years ago, Zappala’s dad – a retired Pennsylvania chief justice – helped lead an effort to form an advocacy group for casinos in the state.
District Attorney Zappala has stated none of that had anything to do with the investigation of Melvin and her sisters. Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus, who heard Melvin’s comments Friday, called them “disingenuous.”
“It is somewhat disappointing to hear the same old rhetoric,” Claus said.
Melvin was identified as a target of the grand jury in December.
Two of her sisters, Jane Orie and Janine Orie, were charged in 2010 with misusing the senator’s staff to do campaign work.
Jane Orie was convicted on 14 of 24 charges in March and has a June 4 sentencing date. Janine Orie, whose trial is scheduled for August, has been suspended from her job as an aide to Melvin.
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Submited at Saturday, May 19th, 2012 at 7:59 am on Politics by Demoli
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