Melvin Conviction May Reignite Talk of Reform

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG -- As lawmakers and court officials assess how suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin will leave the bench, others are pondering whether her corruption conviction will stop the pervasive use of tax dollars in Pennsylvania political campaigns.

Melvin, 56, of Marshall, convicted on Thursday on six criminal charges in Allegheny County, joins more than 30 state officials charged with public corruption during the past five years. Most of them, including eight ex-legislative leaders, were convicted.

Jurors found that Melvin and her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless, conspired with a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to use state-paid employees for political work during Melvin's campaigns for Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. Jane Orie, 51, convicted separately, is serving 21/2 to 10 years in the State Correctional Institution in Cambridge Springs, Pa.

"So-called scandals like this can act as springboards to reform aspects of the system," said Lynn Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a court watchdog group that advocates appointing rather than electing judges, among other justice system changes.

Some elected officials cut corners and use state money for campaigns because they believe their policies and programs are so important that it's worth it, said Bruce Antkowiak, a law professor at St. Vincent College and a former federal prosecutor. He said those officials think that " 'for me to continue serving my constituents and continue working on legislation I've worked on, I need to be in office.' "

In Pennsylvania, Antkowiak said, that has led to a "blurring of the lines" between state and campaign business.

The next steps

Gov. Tom Corbett will nominate someone to replace Melvin if she resigns, is impeached or is removed by a judge at sentencing or by the Court of Judicial Discipline, which has an active complaint. The House will begin impeachment if she doesn't resign, according to a spokesman for Speaker Sam Smith, R-Punxsutawney.

Melvin's seat would be up for election in November 2015, so her appointed replacement would serve until January 2016.

"(Corbett) will deal with that issue when a vacancy occurs," spokesman Kevin Harley said of the appointment.

The change might take time. The Senate must confirm whomever Corbett nominates by a two-thirds vote. The Republican governor needs Democratic support to meet that threshhold -- something that gives Senate Democrats leverage when negotiating the state budget before June 30.

The Supreme Court continues with six members, three Republicans and three Democrats. As a Republican, Melvin gave the GOP an edge as a potential deciding vote before her suspension in May. Republicans control the Senate, 27-23, but it will take 34 votes to confirm a nominee.

Allegheny County Judge Lester G. …