THE CASE OF state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin comes with layers and tentacles that could create a multilevel political nightmare.

The justice, as reported last week by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, is a recipient of a target letter from an Allegheny County grand jury, usually a prelude to criminal charges.

Two of her sisters, state Sen. Jane Orie, R-Allegheny County, and Janine Orie, an aide to Joan, already are charged with using public offices and employees for campaign purposes, including working to elect Joan to the court in 2009.

It's a touching tale of shared family values.

Jane and Janine face trial in Pittsburgh on Feb. 13.

But whether Joan is charged, takes a leave, is suspended or remains in place, she presents a web of woes for the court, the Legislature and both parties.

That's because the court is scheduled to hear arguments Jan. 23 on a controversial legislative-redistricting plan facing 11 formal challenges.

One challenger, Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa, of Pittsburgh, calls the plan (which sets new boundary lines for House and Senate seats for the next 10 years) "constitutionally flawed" and designed for "partisan political reasons" to benefit Republicans who control the Legislature.

Actually, every such plan every 10 years is thusly described because that's what it is, no matter which party is in control. It's the Pennsylvania way.

Still, here's the problem of the moment.

If Orie, a Republican, is on the bench for the hearing, the focus will be on her.

Democrats can argue that a justice suspected of political corruption should have no part in deciding political issues; and/or a justice with a family member in the Legislature should have no part in deciding legislative boundaries.

Seems to make sense, but stay tuned.

If Orie is not on the bench - and because the remaining six justices are politically split: three Republicans, three Democrats - Republicans can argue that grand-jury action was timed to get Orie out of redistricting, thereby denying Republicans a 4-3 edge.

Sound like a stretch?

Well, the Orie probe is headed by Allegheny County Democratic D.A. Stephen Zappala Jr., son of former state Supreme Court Justice Stephen Zappala.

The Ories allege that Zappala Jr. is engaged in a partisan blood feud rooted in Sen. Orie's opposition to legalized gambling and Zappala Sr.'s connections to same as head of the Pennsylvania Casino Association.

I know: It's a nasty nest.

And there's more.

Suppose Justice Joan is off the bench, by recusal or court order, by the time of the hearing. This, by the way, is a likely scenario, say sources with knowledge of the situation, despite the Orie family's reputation for dogged determination.

Then suppose the three Democratic justices (Seamus McCaffrey, Debra Todd and Max Baer - no relation) and the three Republican justices (Thomas Saylor, Michael Eakin and Chief Justice Ron Castille) can't agree on redistricting.

While you no doubt are shocked at even a suggestion that politics might play a part in judicial decisions, what if the court can't reach accord?

I reached out to Castille, who did not reach back. But court spokesman James Koval tells me: "We don't know, because it's never happened before."

Remember, this is not a lower-court ruling appealed to the Supreme Court. It's a legislative plan under challenge. If it was a court decision, a tie on the high court would mean that the lower-court ruling stands. But this is new territory, Koval says.

And the clock is ticking. With legislative districts unsettled, the first day to circulate and file nominating papers to run for the Legislature is the day after the hearing. The last filing day is Feb. 14, Valentine's Day.

Appropriate, no? Don'tcha love Pennsylvania politics?

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