PITTSBURGH – Suspended state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin stands to lose a sizeable state pension once she’s sentenced on corruption charges in May, when the judge who presided over her campaign corruption trial also may remove her from office.
Information obtained Wednesday by the Associated Press from the State Employees’ Retirement System through a Right-to-Know request shows Melvin qualifies for a maximum annual pension of $140,322.
The request also sought pension information about Melvin’s sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, who is serving a prison sentence in a related corruption case. Based on that information, the AP calculated Orie’s maximum annual pension at $37,700.
State law requires pension forfeitures by officials who commit certain crimes once they are sentenced or plead guilty, but SERS spokeswoman Heather Tyler said no forfeiture action has been taken in either case, since neither of the sisters have applied for benefits.
Melvin, 56, was convicted last month in Allegheny County of theft of services and other charges for using her former Superior Court staff, and her sister’s own state-paid staff, to work on her 2003 and 2009 campaigns for the Supreme Court. A third sister, Melvin aide Janine Orie, 58, was also convicted.
Jane Orie, the former lawmaker, is serving 2 1/2 to 10 years in prison for misusing her own state-funded staffers on her own campaigns. She was acquitted at that same trial last year on all charges that she ordered her staff to work on Melvin’s campaigns, too.
Jane Orie’s attorney, William Costopoulos, did not immediately return a call seeking comment Wednesday.
Melvin’s attorney, Patrick Casey, declined comment on the pension matter and an order by Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus asking both sides to weigh in on whether he can and should also remove her from office at her May 7 sentencing.
A sentencing judge ordered Rolf Larsen removed from office when he became the first – and only other – sitting Supreme Court justice to be convicted of a crime in 1994. Despite the court action, the state Senate also convicted Larsen on unrelated articles of impeachment later that year and banned him from holding office.
The state constitution contains two passages Nauhaus wants attorneys to address: One orders a justice, judge or justice of the peace to forfeit his office if convicted of misbehavior in office and the other applies to “civil officers” convicted of misbehavior in office or “any infamous crime.”
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.
That court must still determine whether Melvin has violated professional conduct rules, the state Constitution or brought disrepute on the judiciary and whether she can be disciplined, up to and including being removed from office.
But as Larsen’s case showed, removing a Supreme Court justice from office and revoking their pension can be incredibly complicated.
Larsen’s trial judge ordered him removed from office while also sentencing Larsen to probation for using the names of court employees to get prescriptions filled so he could hide his taking the drugs to battle anxiety and depression.
When Larsen challenged the judge’s removal, the Court of Judicial Discipline suspended him without pay and 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 already being twice ordered out of office, the Court of Judicial Discipline followed up and also 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. The last ruling, in 2011 by the state Commonwealth Court, found that Larsen was eligible to collect a pension based on his initial 1994 removal date from office, but not a larger sum he would have collected based on his filing for a pension in 2001.