Former Pa. justice takes appeal to state Supreme Court

By The Penn Record | Sep 26, 2014

Former State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin

After the Pennsylvania Superior Court rejected former State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's appeal of her criminal convictions for theft of services and conspiracy, the disgraced jurist has filed the appeal to the very court she once presided.

Melvin was convicted in February 2013 of public corruption charges relating to the use of her government staff members to help her 2003 and 2009 election campaigns for the state Supreme Court. Allegheny Court of Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus sentenced Melvin to three years house arrest and two years probation, plus the payment of $128,000 in fines and court costs.

The sentencing also had the unusual order that Melvin write apology letters to members of her staff and apology notes on a photograph of Melvin handcuffed and mail them every judge in the Commonwealth.

According to the Superior Court, Melvin's appeal on the convictions for theft of services and conspiracy rested on the opinion that Melvin violated court rules prohibiting elected officials from using government resources for political purposes. The violations should have amounted to reprimands and not criminal charges.

The three-member Superior Court panel denied this appeal, saying in an opinion authored by Judge Christine Donohue that the charged related to diverting the services of paid government employees for non-Commonwealth business. The charges had nothing to do with the content of her staff members' work.

Most of Merlin's 15 other objections were also denied by the Superior Court, including her motion that the warrant for her e-mails was too broad and that the entire bench at the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas should have been dismissed.

In the former matter, the Superior Court did agree that the first warrant for Merlin's e-mails was too broad, but the error to suppress the messages was harmless and did not prejudice Merlin's case.

"Commonwealth introduced into evidence an  overwhelming quantum of other uncontradicted evidence, from numerous other witnesses and a large volume of other exhibits unrelated to the 10 emails in question," the opinion says. "Thus, the prejudicial effect of these 10 emails is insignificant by comparison and in our view could not have contributed to the verdict."

As for the latter appeal regarding the recusal of Allegheny County judges from presiding over the trial, the Superior Court denied a conflict of interest because Melvin had not been a member of that bench since 1997 and did not present a direct relationship to the current judges. Furthermore, the opinion says, her defense did not move to recuse Nauhaus at the time of the trial and provided no evidence that he could not preside over the case unbiased.

The Superior Court did find that the unorthodox requirement to handwrite apology letters on photos of Merlin in handcuffs was an illegal sentencing requirement, based mostly on the fact that Nauhaus ordered the photos taken with the handcuffs at the conclusion of the trial. Merlin had already been convicted and sentenced to house arrest and did not require handcuffs, turning the shackles into props for the sole purpose to shame the former justice.

However, the court said, Melvin will still have to handwrite apology letters to her staff and members of the judiciary is permissible and will force her to "accept responsibility for the harm she caused." The panel rejected Melvin's motion that the letters violated her Fifth Amendment Right to avoid self-incrimination as she contends her innocence. According to the Superior Court, the right cannot be extended beyond the resolution of her direct appeal.

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