Pa. judge guts key evidence in Melvin defense
PITTSBURGH – Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin’s attorneys can’t present evidence they said would show her former staff did all their judicial work while she was on a lower court and running for the Supreme Court, a judge ruled Tuesday.
The ruling by Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus rips a key plank from the defense, which contends Melvin, 56, and her sister, Janine Orie, 58, didn’t commit the crime of theft of services when Melvin ran for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009 while serving as a Superior Court judge.
The sisters are charged with conspiring to misuse Melvin’s state-funded staff to do campaign work, and with conspiring with a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, 51, to similarly misuse the lawmaker’s state-paid staff to campaign for Melvin, too.
The defense plans to call three summary witnesses Wednesday to testify about the efficiency of Melvin’s Superior Court staff when she was running for the state’s highest court. Nauhaus will allow the witnesses to testify about how much it cost to run Melvin’s chambers in the relevant years but refused a request to let the witnesses tell the jury how many cases Melvin and her staff handled annually on the lower court compared to other judges.
Defense attorney Patrick Casey argued the caseload evidence was relevant because it would show Melvin had no reason to believe her staff was doing the illegal political work instead of the judicial tasks for which they were being paid.
The judge told Casey that Melvin could testify if she wanted the jury to understand perceptions about whether her staff was keeping up with the judicial work and, therefore, that she had no idea they were doing the political work, too. Casey noted Melvin has a constitutional right not to testify, though he has yet to say whether she will take the stand.
The judge ruled the efficiency of Melvin’s staff is irrelevant because the theft of services charge at the center of the case doesn’t require the prosecution to prove that the Superior Court, the state or taxpayers suffered a loss. All the law requires, Nauhaus said, is for Deputy District Attorney Lawrence Claus to prove that Melvin’s state-funded staff – or Jane Orie’s – did campaign work for Melvin when they weren’t being paid to do that by the state.
“The essential issue of the case is this: If you have control over the work of others and if you use that work of others for your own benefit, that’s theft of services,” Nauhaus said.
Casey argued the statistics on the number of cases the staff handled “is evidence that proves the services were not diverted.”
Janine Orie’s attorney, James DePasquale, said the evidence also strengthens his “common-sense” defense, namely, how could Melvin’s staff do the political work they’re accused of and still complete their assigned judicial work.
Nauhaus wasn’t moved, saying, “You can get statistics to tell you anything you want them to, Mr. Casey. You know that; I know that.”
Casey told the judge he didn’t believe he was being allowed to give Melvin a fair trial – an accusation that drew an immediate rebuke.
“Mr. Casey, I have bent over backward to give your client a fair trial,” Nauhaus said. “I am offended by it.”
Melvin and Janine Orie also are charged with conspiring with Jane Orie to misuse her state-funded legislative staff on Melvin’s campaigns.
The former lawmaker was acquitted last year of charges she used her staff to campaign for Melvin but was convicted and sentenced to 2½ to 10 years in prison for using her staff on her own campaigns.