Joan Orie Melvin says that she is innocent of the four felonies and five misdemeanors that a grand jury charged her with last week, and claims that the investigation and charges were politically motivated.
As a citizen, she’s entitled to the presumption of her innocence. But as a state Supreme Court justice, she is subject to a higher standard; her actions impact the perception of fairness and justice for the entire court system. As the Philadelphia Bar Association said in a statement last week urging her resignation, “We cannot have a sitting justice who has been indicted.”
We agree. Justice Melvin, who was relieved of her judicial duties by the court but still will get paid, should resign from the court. The charges in the presentment — detailing a long history of making court staff work on campaign tasks for her run for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009 — are enough to cast a dark shadow over the court. Removing that shadow as quickly as possible should be paramount — and that falls not just to the court’s own Judicial Conduct Board, but to Melvin herself.
Justice Melvin says that she’s going to fight the charges, and that they are part of a political vendetta because of her criticism of juvenile-detention facilities owned by the brother of the Allegheny County district attorney. She should fight the charges, but not while collecting a salary as a Supreme Court judge.
It’s ironic that her claim of this vendetta is a family affair. Melvin’s sister Jane Orie, facing sentencing for 14 convictions, resigned last week from the State Senate. Another sister, Janine, also faces charges, and is at the heart of the judicial scandal. She was running Justice Melvin’s office, and, according to the grand-jury report, current and former staffers testified that they were forced, often by Janine Orie, to take on campaign duties, such as tracking contributions, showing up at polls, and more — all of which is illegal. At least one staffer who refused lost her job. (The saga also calls into question nepotism rules — and at the very least, the judgment of Melvin in employing a close family member.)
The taint that these claims cast on the court is serious. But Justice Melvin’s refusal to step down also compromises the smooth running of the court, since it is now down a member, and that opens the possibility of deadlocks.
Mainly, though, this case puts another big fat bow on the move to have judges be appointed on merit rather than elected. Not that such a bow was necessary; the past two years have seen judicial scandals at every level. Many of the scandals have been testament to the dangers of subjecting judges to a partisan political process that requires lots of money to succeed.
The testimony in this latest grand jury report paints a disheartening picture of a judicial office, not as the sanctuary of justice, fairness and responsibility, but, rather, as a never-ending machine of raising money, campaigning and doing whatever is necessary to stay in office.
Pennsylvanians deserve better. Legislation pending in Harrisburg should be fast-tracked. n