New Castle News


February 26, 2013

Our Opinion: What happens with Melvin after her corruption conviction?

NEW CASTLE — So now what?

Last week’s conviction of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin on most of the corruption counts against her leads to the question above. What does the commonwealth do now that it has a convicted criminal sitting on the bench of its highest court?

Several options exist. Pennsylvania’s court system, for example, has a mechanism that allows for removal of judges found to have engaged in illegal or unethical activity. And the state’s constitution allows the Legislature to pursue impeachment.

That happened once before, with former Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen. But that was an agonizing process, and it tied the Legislature in knots, as lawmakers pursued an action with little precedent. Even if impeachment proceedings were to go more smoothly against Melvin, they almost surely would be slow and cumbersome.

And we suppose the same thing could be said about any action taken by Pennsylvania’s Judicial Conduct Board against Melvin. The process could take months.

This makes us wonder if any such effort is worth it. By the time the Legislature or Judicial Conduct Board is able to act, Melvin most likely will be sentenced on the charges she was convicted of last week. At that point, she automatically will be removed from office.

That’s how it works in Pennsylvania, as astute Lawrence County residents will recall from observing the Gary Felasco saga. The former Lawrence County treasurer — despite a litany of criminal counts and resultant conviction — was able to keep his elected post and its salary until he was sentenced.

The best thing to occur here would be for Melvin to do the right thing and resign. Sometimes that happens with elected officials convicted of crimes in the commonwealth. They at least have the decency to spare the taxpayers any further embarrassment and quietly give up their seats.

But it’s not required, as we learned from Felasco. So far, there’s no indication what Melvin will do. If she persists in claims she is innocent of charges related to the use of state employees for campaign work, the judge could hold on to her seat until sentencing.

One good thing is that Melvin has been on leave from the Supreme Court because of the charges against her. But that means there is a spot on the panel that needs to be filled. However, until she gives up her seat, or is forced from it, Melvin cannot be replaced.

Eventually, Melvin no longer will be a presence on the Supreme Court. That’s an unfortunate end to her career, but it’s an end she crafted for herself. Sadly, using tax dollars for political purposes — by paying state employees to work on campaigns — has been a widespread problem in Pennsylvania. It prompted the Bonusgate investigation.

Perhaps Melvin’s fate can serve a purpose if it reminds state politicians that abusing power in this fashion can carry a heavy cost.

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