PITTSBURGH — Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin avoided prison time Tuesday for her campaign corruption conviction but was ordered to send a letter of apology to every judge in the state because she abused her office.
Melvin and her sister and former aide Janine Orie each received house arrest for illegally using the judge’s state-funded staff as part of her two campaigns for a seat on the state’s highest court.
Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus chided Melvin for engaging in crimes of “arrogance” and ordered her to immediately have her picture taken by a county photographer for inclusion with the hundreds of apology letters she must write.
Although Nauhaus didn’t imprison the women as prosecutors hoped, he admonished Melvin for claiming to be a role model for her children.
“What kind of role model are you? These are felonies, this isn’t a parking ticket, and your children’s mother is a convicted felon,” Nauhaus told Melvin, 57, a married mother of six.
The sisters were convicted of theft of services and other crimes for using Melvin’s former court staff — and the staff of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie — to work on Melvin’s political campaigns in 2003 and 2009. Melvin was a Superior Court judge at the time, and lost the first election before voters picked her for the state’s highest court.
Melvin, a devout Catholic, was sentenced to three years of house arrest during which she may leave only for church — unless she receives specific permission from the judge for other activities — followed by two years’ probation. She is also barred from referring to herself as a judge while under sentence.
Janine Orie, 58, was sentenced to one year of house arrest and two years of probation for helping coordinate the illegal campaigning.
One Melvin staffer said she was shunned by Janine Orie and Melvin after objecting to the campaign work and another, law clerk Lisa Sasinoski, claimed she was fired — although jurors were unable to reach a verdict on a count of official oppression relating to that claim.
“She violated the law, she ruined the lives of an awful lot of people,” Nauhaus said in explaining Melvin’s sentence.
Nauhaus also ordered the sisters to write letters of apology to any staff members who were made to do the illegal work.
Melvin has surrendered her law license and resigned her court seat effective May 1, but Nauhaus still saw fit to formally remove her from office, apparently to emphasize the point and head off a protracted legal battle like that involving Rolf Larsen, the only other sitting state Supreme Court justice convicted of a crime.
Larsen, also from Allegheny County, was convicted in 1994 and the trial judge ordered him removed from office while sentencing Larsen to probation for using court employees’ names to get prescriptions filled so he could hide taking drugs to battle anxiety and depression. Larsen challenged the judge’s removal although he was ultimately removed by the state Senate and the Court of Judicial Discipline.
Nauhaus also fined Melvin $55,000. Although Melvin will likely lose a state pension estimated at $140,000 annually, she was entitled to a refund of her payroll pension contributions. Nauhaus said the fine — and still-to-be-determined court costs and restitution — are designed to “exhaust” the pension money.
Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus had asked for a sentence similar to the 2ﾽ- to 10-year prison sentence Jane Orie is serving. The 51-year-old ex-lawmaker was convicted of misusing her state-funded Senate staff on her own campaigns, and forging defense documents used at her initial mistrial, though she was acquitted of making her staff campaign for Melvin, too.
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff, who followed the case, said Melvin “got off easy” because she’s not going to prison like Jane Orie.
“She should thank her lucky stars,” he said, adding that Nauhaus appeared to be sending a message to his colleagues by way of the court-ordered apologies.
“His message transmitted through her apology: Hey, this could be you if you forget that even though you are a judge, you’re not above the law,” Burkoff said.
Melvin’s attorney, Patrick Casey, argued for probation noting that the aggregate value of the illegal campaign work Melvin received from state-paid staffers was about $34,000. Nauhaus acknowledged the illegal work was a pittance compared to roughly $1 million Melvin reportedly spent on each of her Supreme Court campaigns, but said arrogance, not necessity, drove the abuses.
“I don’t believe that Joan Melvin is an evil person, I’ve never believed that,” Nauhaus told the courtroom. “But I do believe that her arrogance is stunning.”
Both sides declined comment after the sentencing.