PITTSBURGH — Attorneys for former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin listed 21 alleged errors they claim should negate her public corruption conviction and sentence, including what they say is bias by the trial judge and an unconstitutional forced apology.
The four-page document filed with the Superior Court on Thursday doesn’t detail Melvin’s arguments against her February conviction and subsequent sentence. Rather, the document gives the court and Allegheny County prosecutors notice of the issues she’ll raise during the appeal.
Melvin, 57, of Pittsburgh’s North Hills suburbs, is serving three years’ house arrest, was fined $55,000, and must mail a signed public apology to every judge in the state — written on a picture Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus ordered taken of her in handcuffs minutes after she was sentenced last month.
Among other things, Melvin’s attorneys contend Nauhaus demonstrated “prejudicial bias” and contends the court-ordered apology violates her constitutional right against self-incrimination.
Melvin’s attorneys declined to comment on the filing, as did district attorney’s spokesman Mike Manko.
Also Thursday, the Supreme Court issued a brief order placing her on temporary suspension as a lawyer.
The claim of judicial bias was not surprising given the verbal sparring between Nauhaus and Melvin’s attorneys throughout the trial.
The combative cross-examination of a key prosecution witness by Daniel Brier, for example, brought a rebuke from Nauhaus.
“Mr. Brier, let’s be a little professional in here, all right?” Nauhaus said.
After the jury left the room, Nauhaus chided Brier that he wasn’t in a “blood sport” arena like Philadelphia, where Melvin’s Scranton-based defense attorneys sometimes practice.
In Thursday’s filing, the defense argued that Nauhaus wrongly “limited” cross-examination of prosecution witnesses and expressed “personal opinions concerning the evidence, mischaracterizing the evidence and testimony in front of the jury and otherwise demonstrating prejudicial bias against the defense.”
John Burkoff, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who followed the trial, said “complaints that a judge was biased are not uncommon, but they are rarely successful.”
“Judge Nauhaus has a reputation in the Pittsburgh legal community as a smart and a fair judge so the chances of success with this sort of personal attack seem slim, to put it mildly,” Burkoff said. “That said, if defense counsel for Joan Melvin believe this is what occurred, they certainly can’t be faulted for making this argument on appeal.”
Nauhaus, a former public defender who now serves as an Orphans’ Court judge, was assigned the case after Judge Jeffrey Manning. Manning presided at the related trials of Melvin’s sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie before he was asked to step aside by Melvin’s attorneys.
Melvin was convicted, along with a third sister, Janine Orie, Melvin’s former court aide, of misusing the state-paid employees of the senator and Melvin’s former Superior Court staff when Melvin ran for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Melvin won a seat on her second try.
Janine Orie, 59, is serving a year on house arrest for her conviction as Melvin’s de facto campaign manager, who allegedly directed both of her sisters’ staffs to do the political work.
Jane Orie, 51, is serving 2ﾽ to 10 years in prison and becomes eligible for parole in February for her convictions of using state paid Senate staffers on her own campaigns and with introducing forged documents that prompted a mistrial on those charges in 2011.
She was acquitted of ordering her staff to work on Melvin’s campaigns.
Thursday’s filing otherwise lists mostly more technical trial errors including allowing Melvin and Janine Orie to be tried together over defense objections. The defense also claims the evidence at trial was either insufficient to support Melvin’s conviction, was illegally obtained or wrongly admitted into evidence by the judge, or was not turned over to the defense at the proper time.
Melvin’s attorneys must file more detailed arguments within 40 days of the appeals court receiving the trial transcript, which isn’t due to be received until July 19.