New Castle News


December 26, 2012

Our Opinon: Joan Orie Melvin can’t hide behind court robes

NEW CASTLE — It’s no secret that some elected officials think they are above the law.

Or that they are somehow special because of the positions they hold and that they can operate free of citizen oversight or the potential for criminal charges.

Pennsylvanians saw plenty of that in connection with the Bonusgate scandal, where state lawmakers were exposed using public funds for personal and political purposes. They also paid staff with taxpayer dollars to perform activities that promoted their re-election efforts.

In other words, taxpayers were making campaign contributions without knowing about it or approving it.

But while the Bonusgate scandal was the most widespread and notorious example of this sort of conduct in Pennsylvania, it wasn’t alone. Right now, another scandal is playing itself out with the criminal case of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin.

Melvin — who is on leave from the court — stands accused of using staff to assist with her election efforts in 2003 and 2009. The case against her is linked to one where her sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, was convicted of doing essentially the same thing.

Last week, Melvin and her attorneys attempted to have the charges against her dismissed. That’s not unusual in a criminal case. However, some of the arguments Melvin employed were.

She attempted to argue that because of her position as a Supreme Court justice, she could not be tried in the criminal system.

Instead, her lawyers claimed that it was up to the judiciary to determine whether Melvin’s conduct was inappropriate.

Pennsylvania does have a system where the conduct of judges and attorneys can be reviewed judicially. But this is not a criminal process. The harshest penalties Melvin could face in this fashion would be loss of her post and disbarment.

In her criminal case, jail time is a possibility.

Fortunately, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Lester G. Nauhaus, who heard Melvin’s pleadings last week, was quick to reject them. He noted — quite rightly — that the allegations against her were akin to common criminal activity, not something directly associated with her actions on the bench.

“Let me get this right,” an obviously incredulous Nauhaus was quoted as saying by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “Because Joan Orie Melvin is a Supreme Court justice, she’s above the law?”

We’re pleased that Nauhaus didn’t have much difficulty understanding the absurdity of this position. We wish all elected officials could keep that concept in mind.

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