PITTSBURGH – A legislator has drafted a resolution that would be the first step in the possible impeachment of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin following her conviction on six counts of corruption, the lawmaker said Friday.
Rep. Glenn Grell said he will confer with fellow lawmakers Monday about whether and when to file the resolution, which would be unnecessary if Melvin resigns voluntarily.
If she doesn’t resign, “I think it would be prudent sooner rather than later to initiate our investigation,” the Cumberland County Republican said.
If approved by the House, the resolution would give a subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee authority to take sworn testimony and issue subpoenas as part of an investigation. Articles of impeachment could result and, if approved by the House, forwarded to the Senate for a trial.
The House is scheduled to reconvene March 11, following a three-week break for state budget hearings.
Echoing Grell, state Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-North Strabane Township, said Friday an impeachment proceeding should be launched if Melvin does not resign.
“The jury has spoken and it’s in the public’s best interest to move forward with replacing Justice Orie Melvin,” said Neuman, D-Washington. “The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for corruption requires immediate action.”
Melvin, 56, was convicted Thursday in Allegheny County of using her former Superior Court staff, and the state-paid staff of her sister, former Republican state Sen. Jane Orie, to work on Melvin’s 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the Supreme Court. Also convicted was Melvin’s aide and sister, Janine Orie, 58.
Jane Orie, the former lawmaker, wasn’t on trial as she’s serving 2½ to 10 years in prison for misusing her own state-funded staffers on her own campaigns, though she was acquitted of ordering them to work on Melvin’s campaigns, too, when she stood trial and was convicted last year.
Melvin’s criminal defense attorneys and William Arbuckle, the attorney who has represented her before the Court of Judicial Discipline, did not immediately return requests for comment Friday.
Melvin won a 10-year term on the court in 2009 which has been divided politically and ideologically – with three Democrats and three Republicans – since she was suspended without pay by the Court of Judicial Discipline in August.
Now that she’s been convicted, Melvin has 30 days to respond to charges of misconduct filed with the disciplinary court by the state’s Judicial Conduct Board. If the Court of Judicial Discipline agrees there’s evidence to support the disciplinary charges, it will hold a trial to determine whether Melvin has violated professional conduct rules, the state Constitution or brought disrepute on the judiciary. If so, the court can then mete out discipline ranging from a reprimand to removal from office.
Melvin also faces possible disbarment by the Disciplinary Board of the state Supreme Court, though that’s a separate proceeding.
If Melvin is removed from office, Gov. Tom Corbett would have 90 days to appoint a replacement, according to Ron Ruman, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State. The appointee must be approved by two-thirds of the state Senate.
Corbett, in a statement, said Melvin’s conviction “shows that no public official is above the law” but has given no hint who might replace her.
In Pennsylvania, removing a Supreme Court justice from office can be incredibly complicated.
Rolf Larsen, the only other sitting state justice to be convicted, was removed from office after his 1994 conviction, also in Allegheny County, for using the names of court employees to get prescriptions filled so he could hide the fact that he had taken drugs to battle anxiety and depression since the 1960s.
The judge in that case ordered Larsen removed from office because of his conviction, and when Larsen challenged that removal, the Court of Judicial Discipline suspended him without pay. Later that year, the state Senate – acting on articles of impeachment brought by the House – removed Larsen from office after finding him guilty of the unrelated charge of having improper communications about a case.
Despite the Senate removal, the Court of Judicial Discipline followed up and formally ordered Larsen removed from judicial office in 2000, in what was essentially a formality. Larsen then began a series of legal efforts to collect a pension, which included protracted litigation about whether it became effective in 1994 or in 2001, when he finally applied for it.