Jon Campisi Feb. 22, 2013, 9:13am

It’s official: Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin is a convicted felon.

The sitting justice was found guilty Thursday on all but one of the public corruption charges that had been lodged against her by the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office.

The guilty verdicts came after a weeks-long trial at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas, according to Pittsburgh news media.

Orie Melvin, who comes from a politically prominent western Pennsylvania family, and whose sister, Jane Orie, a former state senator, is herself currently jailed after being found guilty on similar public corruption charges, had been charged with using her then-Superior Court staff to work on her campaign for the high court in both 2003 and 2009.

Orie Melvin was eventually elected to the high court; she currently remains suspended from her $190,000-plus job because she had been charged criminally.

Orie Melvin was found guilty on six of seven counts – three of them were felonies – including theft of services and conspiracy charges.

One of the justice’s sister’s, Janine Orie, who had worked as an aide to Orie Melvin, was also convicted of similar charges Thursday.

Pittsburgh media has reported that the Allegheny County jury was deadlocked on one count against Orie Melvin, official oppression, which had to do with prosecutors’ allegation that the jurist fired her law clerk for refusing to do political work.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette quoted Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala, Jr. as saying in court that the verdict shows that nobody is above the law, “irrespective of title or status.”

The last sitting Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice to be convicted of a crime while in office was Rolf Larsen, according to news reports.

While serving on the high court, Larsen was convicted of conspiracy to procure controlled substances.

As for Orie Melvin, 56, the future of her position as a Supreme Court justice remains uncertain.

She stepped down from her position after being charged by authorities this past spring, and then was formally suspended from the bench by the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline after a recommendation to do so by the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board.

Pittsburgh media has reported that Orie Melvin all along has maintained her innocence, and has claimed that the charges were politically motivated; the Ories come from a prominent Republican family while Zappala, the district attorney, is apparently a staunch Democrat.

Before her case went to trial, Orie Melvin’s attorneys attempted to get the charges dropped by contending that the matter should be handled internally, meaning that the Supreme Court, and not the state’s criminal courts, should be deciding what to do with Orie Melvin.

But an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge ruled otherwise, determining that the matter was ripe for a public jury trial.

Aside from leaving the justice’s fate on the high court undecided at this point, Orie Melvin’s conviction has renewed calls for scrapping the system of electing judges in Pennsylvania.

Court reform advocates, like the group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, have long called for merit selection, a process by which judicial candidates are appointed by the governor and then confirmed by lawmakers.

On Thursday, PMC issued a news release that speaks to this very issue, saying that the conviction of a sitting justice highlights the need to reexamine how judges are chosen in the commonwealth.

“Like all candidates for public office, judicial candidates must take special care to comply with all applicable laws and rules,” PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks said in a statement.

“But judges should be held to an even higher standard because of the great power entrusted to them by the public and because our courts are only effective when the people have confidence in them.”

Retired Superior Court Judge Phyllis W. Beck said in her own statement that when a high court justice is convicted of misusing judicial resources for campaign purposes, “something is fundamentally wrong with the system. After all, this could only happen in a system where we elect our judges.”

According to PMC, a 2010 statewide poll found that three quarters of all Pennsylvanians believe that campaign contributions influence judges’ decision-making and don’t believe that the most qualified candidates end up winning.

“Pennsylvanians deserve a better judicial system,” Marks said in her statement. “It’s time to get judges out of the campaign and fundraising business.”

A bill is currently pending in the state Senate that, if passed and signed into law by the governor, would move toward a merit selection system for appellate judges only, that is, judges on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme Courts.

All other judges, including trial-level Common Pleas Court jurists, would continue to be elected under that proposal, which was introduced by Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat from Philadelphia.

As for Orie Melvin’s fate on the high court, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that the justice can either step down voluntarily, be ordered removed from the bench by the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline, or be impeached by Pennsylvania’s General Assembly.

Larsen, the former justice who was criminally convicted, was impeached by the legislature following his trial.

Orie Melvin’s absence on the high court has left six justices remaining, meaning tie votes on important cases are a very real possibility.

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