NEW CASTLE – An attorney whose office prosecuted former Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin briefly took her side Tuesday, telling a state appeals court panel that it was bizarre and offensive for her to be ordered to send autographed apology photos of herself in handcuffs to every other judge in the state as part of her corruption sentence.
But the lawyer, Deputy Allegheny County District Attorney Michael Streily, also told the Superior Court judges that he’ll suggest Melvin be sent to prison if they overturn all or part of her punishment and order her resentenced by her trial judge.
“This judge did the most bizarre thing I’ve seen in 29 years,” Streily said, referring to his time as an attorney.
Melvin’s attorney, Patrick Casey, argued the sentence and underlying conviction were illegal and asked the three-judge panel to overturn both.
The panel heard the appeal in Lawrence County, about 45 miles northwest of the Allegheny County courtroom in Pittsburgh where Melvin was convicted last year and sentenced to three years’ probation, a $55,000 fine and community service in a soup kitchen. Judge Lester Nauhaus also ordered Melvin to send the apologies, written on copies of a picture he ordered taken of Melvin in handcuffs minutes after imposing the sentence.
Melvin’s attorneys contend that ordering their client to apologize while her case remains on appeal violates her right against self-incrimination.
Streily said that argument is irrelevant because Melvin apologized for her conduct before sentencing. But Streily made clear he disagreed with the picture aspect of the apology when Superior Court Judge Christine Donohue suggested the panel might at least overturn that portion of the sentence.
Streily contended, however, that Nauhaus didn’t sentence Melvin to prison because he felt the shaming photographs would sufficiently address what Nauhaus called Melvin’s “stunning arrogance” in using her state-paid staffers, and those of her sister, then-state Sen. Jane Orie, to run Melvin’s campaigns. Melvin was a Superior Court judge when she ran for the state’s highest court, losing in 2003 and winning a seat in 2009.
As such, Streily argued the court should order Melvin resentenced from scratch instead of simply voiding the apology photograph portion of her punishment.
“If the foundation of the sentence doesn’t exist, the sentence doesn’t exist,” Streily argued. “Because that’s why he didn’t sentence her to prison.”
“I’m offended by it, and we didn’t ask for it,” Streily said, arguing that prosecutors shouldn’t be penalized for Nauhaus’ overzealous punishment. “This is the worst sentencing procedure that I’ve ever seen.”
Casey, Melvin’s attorney, is also arguing that her conviction should be overturned, among other reasons, because he claims state law gives the Supreme Court the sole power to discipline judges for misusing their staffs. Casey, making a separation of powers argument, said it’s none of the business of the executive branch – which prosecutors are part of – if judges waste or misuse court resources, even for partisan politicking. Melvin was convicted of theft of services for doing so.
Casey seemed pleased by questions that Judge Donohue and the others on the panel raised about Melvin’s sentence and conviction.
“There were very serious trial court errors in this case and it’s obvious the court is grappling with them,” Casey said.