Thursday, October 23, 2014
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Senator's conviction may lead to judicial reform

The political corruption conviction of State Sen. Jane Orie stands as another broadside against Pennsylvania’s system of electing judges, and it leaves a cloud over Orie’s sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Senator's conviction may lead to judicial reform

State Sen. Jane Orie
State Sen. Jane Orie

The political corruption conviction of State Sen. Jane Orie stands as another broadside against Pennsylvania’s system of electing judges, and it leaves a cloud over Orie’s sister, state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

The jury Monday convicted Orie, a Pittsburgh-area senator, on 14 counts involving the use of her legislative staff to perform campaign work for herself and Melvin, then a Superior Court judge, who was elected to the high court in 2009.

Melvin, while not charged with any wrongdoing, reportedly has been named a target in a grand-jury probe. The understandable calls for Melvin to step back from hearing cases at least temporarily — or for her suspension under court disciplinary procedures — are unlikely to go away.

While the Orie jury saw daylight between the senator and Melvin’s political work — acquitting the senator of politicking specifically on the judge’s behalf — the same issues will be raised in the trial of another Orie sister.

In that case, Janine Orie, a former aide to Melvin, is accused of directing Melvin’s then-Superior Court staff to do campaign work in 2003 and 2009. Janine Orie also is fighting criminal counts for allegedly using the senator’s staff to campaign for Melvin.

The judge has not responded to calls for her to step down, but has recused herself from hearing Allegheny County criminal cases.

Trial testimony,  though, was particularly damaging to Melvin. As justice-elect in late 2009, and just as the Orie corruption probe gathered steam, Melvin was said to have joined the senator in ordering an aide to remove materials that might tie Melvin to illegal campaign work done out of  her sister’s Senate office.

Other testimony described Melvin’s Superior Court staff as routinely performing political work “within every judicial office” of the judge.

As a probe target, it’s time for Melvin to do what’s best for the high court’s reputation by recusing herself from all cases, due to what the court-reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts has correctly described as “the cloud of such a serious investigation.”

In terms of judicial elections, the Orie allegations offer an unsparing look at the pressures judicial candidates in Pennsylvania face in having to raise money and get out the vote in contested elections, which most states have abolished in favor of an appointed bench.

It could be said that picking judges at the polls shouldn’t be condemned solely on the basis of allegations in the Orie scandal. But all judicial candidates are compromised by having to raise funds, often from future litigants in their own court — a practice most voters say creates the impression that justice is for sale.

While Orie faces sentencing, and the certain loss of her seat and, likely, her state pension, the hope is that the legacy of her case adds up to more than just another disgraced politician — and possibly  the fate a high-court judge.

It’s hoped that this case will crank up the momentum for proposals supported by Gov. Corbett to get the state’s appellate judges off the campaign trail by switching to a system of merit-based appointments to statewide courts.

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