Pa. state legislator says convicted Justice Orie Melvin must go

By Jon Campisi | Feb 25, 2013

In the wake of the judicial scandal at the state’s highest court involving now-convicted

felon Joan Orie Melvin, at least one lawmaker is calling for the sitting justice to resign her post.

State Rep. Brandon Neuman, a Democrat from Washington County, issued a statement on Feb. 22 calling for Orie Melvin, who was found guilty the previous day on six public corruption counts, to step down from her seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

“The jury has spoken and it’s in the public’s best interest to move forward with replacing Justice Orie Melvin on the bench,” Neuman stated.

Orie Melvin last week became the first sitting Supreme Court justice in nearly two decades to be convicted on criminal charges.

The 56-year-old justice from western Pennsylvania was convicted on theft of services and conspiracy charges in connection with her ordering staff to do campaign work.

Her sister, Jane Orie, a former state senator, had been convicted on similar charges at a prior trial and is currently serving time in state prison for her crimes.

In calling for Orie Melvin to immediately step down from the high court, Neuman noted that the commonwealth has been without a seventh justice since last spring, when Orie Melvin voluntarily stepped aside after learning of the criminal charges against her.

Although she stepped down on her own the day she learned of the charges, Orie Melvin was subsequently suspended by both her colleagues on the Supreme Court and the state’s Court of Judicial Discipline.

“The conviction of a Supreme Court justice for corruption requires immediate action,” Neuman said in his statement.

If she doesn’t resign, Neuman promised to file a petition in the state House of Representatives calling for the impeachment process to begin.

Aside from resigning, Orie Melvin can be removed from office either through legislative impeachment or through an order by the Court of Judicial Discipline.

Kathleen D. Wilkinson, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association, called Orie Melvin’s conviction a “sad day for the justice system in Pennsylvania,” and urged the passage of a merit selection bill that would end the process of electing judges.

A merit selection bill that was recently introduced by state Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Philadelphia Democrat, is currently pending in the legislature.

“The time has come to stop electing appellate court judges, to restore the confidence of the electorate in our judicial system, and to open the process to a wider and more diverse pool of well-qualified candidates, by adopting a system of merit selection for the election of judges in Pennsylvania,” Wilkinson said in a statement. “When judges are forced to engage in election campaigning requiring large sums of money to be raised, citizens become concerned that those judges are then beholden to campaign contributors, party officials and special interests. As a result, many citizens question whether they will receive fair treatment in a court of law.”

Thomas G. Wilkinson, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association, and Kathleen Wilkinson’s husband, issued a similar statement following Orie Melvin’s conviction in which he called the verdict a “sad chapter in the history of Pennsylvania’s justice system.”

“As lawyers, we have a responsibility to do all we possibly can to help preserve the integrity of the justice system and restore public confidence in our judiciary,” Thomas Wilkinson said in his statement. “The many distinguished and honorable judges in Pennsylvania deserve nothing less. An independent and impartial judiciary is a cornerstone of our system of justice, and public confidence in the judiciary is undermined when judges engage in high profile misconduct, such as by directing their law clerks and staff to perform political campaign work when they should be doing the important business of the court.”

Like his wife’s organization, Thomas Wilkinson said the Pennsylvania Bar Association also supports a merit-based, appointive system of selecting appellate judges in particular, with the PBA president saying that the selection of judges should be based on “experience and performance and not on ballot position, political party or effectiveness in campaign fundraising.”

One other organization that has been consistently in favor of moving toward a merit selection system is the advocacy group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts.

In a statement released in the wake of Orie Melvin’s conviction, PMC Executive Director Lynn Marks said that it’s high time the state begins choosing judges based on experience and not based on ballot position and the amount of dollars in their campaign war chest.

“It’s time to get judges out of the campaign and fundraising business. Our legislators must take the first steps to make it happen,” Marks stated. “Once they do, the people can decide for themselves whether to change their constitution. It’s time to act.”

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