An Allegheny County grand jury's indictment Friday of state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin represents a new low for Pennsylvania's highest court, but it could prove to be a valuable driving force for reforming the state's discredited system of electing its appellate judges.
Melvin, 56, says she will fight the criminal charges that she misused her taxpayer-funded staff while serving as a Superior Court judge by having it do political campaign work in her 2009 pursuit of a state Supreme Court seat.
Despite her plea of innocence, however, related electioneering charges led to the conviction in March of Melvin's sister, Republican State Sen. Jane Orie. A third sister and former aide to the justice, Janine Orie, faces trial this summer for allegedly directing both Senate and court staffers to do illegal campaign work.
Not since the 1994 conspiracy conviction, impeachment, and removal of then-Justice Rolf R. Larsen, who was convicted of illegally obtaining prescription drugs, has so harsh a spotlight hit the state Supreme Court over criminal allegations against a justice.
Now that she faces nine criminal counts, Melvin has been forced by her court colleagues to take a step that could help bolster public confidence. Under a state Supreme Court order issued Friday, which cited "a compelling and immediate need to protect and preserve the integrity" of the court, Melvin was relieved of all court duties.
The suspension was overdue, but nonetheless welcome from a court whose administrative stewardship had previously been called into question by its slow intervention in the Luzerne County juvenile court scandal, and for its costly, bungled planning of a new Philadelphia family-court building.
Given trial disclosures leading to Orie's conviction, Melvin could have faced suspension, or even removal, much earlier under court disciplinary procedures. Witnesses in Orie's trial told jurors that Melvin and Orie directed an aide to remove materials that might tie Melvin to illegal campaign work done out of Orie's Senate office.
Indeed, the grand-jury report and the Orie trial testimony portray Melvin as just another scheming pol who "actively condoned and even promoted" illegal campaign-related activity by state-paid workers.
Melvin should heed new calls for her to resign, including one coming Friday from Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor John E. Savoth.
Similar to the Bonusgate scandal, which has led to the jailing of a number of former state lawmakers and aides, the allegations against Melvin and her sisters portray politicians as all too willing to break the rules to get elected.