PITTSBURGH – The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Thursday rejected a day-old request from suspended fellow Justice Joan Orie Melvin to halt her prosecution on campaign corruption charges, moving the case a step closer to trial.
The court issued a one-page order denying Melvin’s petition without comment. Justice Max Baer abstained from the decision.
Melvin, 56, was charged in May with using her former state-paid Superior Court staffers to illegally campaign for a seat on the Supreme Court in 2003, an election she lost, and again in 2009, when she was elected to the state’s highest court.
Her request, filed Wednesday, was a direct appeal to the high court after Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus rejected a similar request. Lawyers in the case are scheduled to begin picking a jury for Melvin’s trial Jan. 23.
The justice’s lawyer, Patrick Casey, declined to comment on Thursday’s decision.
In response to Melvin’s appeal, prosecutors said she is not allowed to commit campaign corruption crimes just because she is a judge.
“A black robe is not authority to stick one’s hand into the public coffer for private gain,” Deputy District Attorney Michael Streily wrote.
Her appeal had asked the state’s highest court to exercise extraordinary jurisdiction, dismiss the charges against Melvin and stop the prosecution in a matter of “immediate public importance.”
Melvin’s attorneys had argued that action is warranted because the Supreme Court alone has the power to regulate the political activity of court employees. The prosecutor’s case, they said, amounted to criminalizing activity that Melvin contended only the courts can regulate.
Streily said Melvin’s appeal was built on a flawed premise.
The state is prosecuting Melvin because she allegedly misused her state-paid staff, their office equipment and other resources to do private campaign work, not because she turned her judicial staff into a campaign staff, Streily wrote.
Streily cited preliminary hearing testimony of Melvin’s former law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski, who is expected to be a key witness.
Asked where the campaign work was done, Sasinoski testified, “It was our office. There was no campaign office.”
“And the equipment that would be used was owned by whom?” Sasinoski was asked.
“The court,” she answered.
Melvin is to be tried along with her sister, Janine Orie, who managed Melvin’s Superior Court staff and also is accused of conspiring to use the state-paid staff of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to campaign for Melvin.
Jane Orie, 51, was convicted last year of using her state-paid Senate staff to work on her own political campaigns. She was acquitted of charges she directed her staff to campaign for Melvin on state time. She is serving 2½ to 10 years in prison.
Melvin was suspended without her $195,000 annual salary while the charges are pending. Janine Orie, who moved with her sister to a staff position with the Supreme Court, was suspended from her job as well.
Janine Orie’s defense attorney, James DePasquale, has said he’s confident she’ll be found “not guilty of everything.”