PITTSBURGH — Former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin contends a judge denied her a fair trial before a jury convicted her of campaign corruption because he was biased against her in his rulings and comments he made in the courtroom.
“Through his words and actions, the trial court regularly and repeatedly communicated to the jury his belief that the charges against Orie Melvin had substantial merit and that her defense was not worthy of credence,” according to the brief submitted by her attorneys.
The claim that Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus was biased and denied Melvin a fair trial is one of 15 arguments Melvin’s attorneys make in seeking to overturn her appeal and conviction.
“Further, the demonstrated judicial bias against Orie Melvin created and continues to create an appearance of impropriety which undermines all of the rulings made in this case. For these reasons, a new trial before a different judge is required,” the defense wrote.
Melvin, 57, was sentenced in May to probation that included three years’ house arrest and other penalties after being convicted in February along with another sister and former aide, Janine Orie, 59, of directing Melvin’s state-paid Superior Court staff to campaign for her. The jury found that Melvin’s staff worked on her unsuccessful 2003 campaign for the state’s highest court, and, again, on her victorious 2009 campaign.
Former Sen. Jane Orie, a third sister, was convicted last year and is still serving a 2½- to 10-year prison sentence imposed by a different judge for using her own state-paid staff on her own campaigns.
Although Jane Orie was acquitted of directing her Senate staff to work on Melvin’s campaigns, Melvin and Janine Orie also were convicted of misusing the senator’s staffers on Melvin’s campaigns.
The district attorney’s office has not filed a response to the defense’s appeal brief filed late last week, and a spokesman, Mike Manko, declined to comment on it.
Among other arguments, Melvin’s attorneys also claim the charges against her unconstitutionally criminalized court employees’ conduct that’s supposed to be regulated by the Supreme Court. They argue that Judge Nauhaus erred in not letting Melvin’s attorneys introduce evidence that her staff produced a high volume of work — which the defense contends would have disproven her staff spent much of their state-paid time doing campaign work.
Finally, the appeal challenges the requirement that Melvin apologize to the state’s other judges by sending them signed pictures of herself in handcuffs, which Nauhaus ordered taken in his chambers immediately after she was sentenced.
Melvin’s attorneys claim the apology portion of her sentence was illegally imposed and requires her to unconstitutionally incriminate herself.
“As long as Orie Melvin continues to assert her innocence, she cannot be required to apologize,” the defense wrote.
The Superior Court has indefinitely suspended the apology portion of the sentence, which was challenged in an earlier, separate appeal, signaling that Melvin may prevail on that issue.
In response, Nauhaus last month suspended Melvin’s entire sentence until the appeal issues spelled out in the latest filing are decided. They include a $55,000 fine and a requirement that Melvin work in a soup kitchen.