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Allegheny County Common Pleas Court Judge Stanton Wettick has denied access to telephone records to several nameless defendants in a defamation case brought by Pennsylvania Superior Court Judge Joan Orie Melvin. Wettick said the broad discovery request was an invasion of privacy because the defendants did not limit their request to records involving specific telephone numbers. “Defendants’ broad discovery request significantly invades a privacy interest that our society values: a right to keep confidential the identities of persons with whom one associates,” Wettick wrote in Melvin v. John Doe, PICS Case No. 00-0913 (C.P. Allegheny May 9, 2000) Wettick, J. “The issue that presently dominates this case is defendants’ claim that the disclosure of their identities would have a chilling effect on political speech,” Wettick wrote. “Disclosure of the identity of persons with whom one associates can have the same impact of the closely related First Amendment right — freedom of association.” Pittsburgh attorney Susan A. Yohe, who represents the Doe defendants, said she will be filing a motion for summary judgment today. Orie Melvin filed the lawsuit in October against the person or persons who posted a statement on a Web site saying the judge engaged in activity that violated the judicial code of ethics. The complaint named 13 Doe defendants. In January, the critic writing under the pseudonym “Grant Street 1999,” posted information on an AOL Web site that said Orie Melvin was lobbying Gov. Tom Ridge to appoint a certain lawyer to a vacancy on the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas after Judge Robert Dauer retired. The posting went on to say, “Shame on Orie-Melvin and Dauer — this is exactly the kind of misconduct by our elected officials that the residents of Allegheny County will not stand for anymore.” Wettick previously denied discovery requests to obtain the identity of the person or persons who wrote the statement. The Doe defendants claim revealing the identity of the publisher of the statement would violate the First Amendment. Witold “Vic” J. Walczak of the American Civil Liberties Union said revealing the name of the Doe defendants is the core issue of the case. He said although there have been several defamation cases filed over Internet publication, Orie Melvin’s case is the only one in the country so far in which a public figure has taken action. Walczak said Orie Melvin’s battle would be won if the writer’s identity were revealed. “Judge Melvin has virtually no chance of winning a defamation suit because as a public figure she has to show actual malice,” Walczak said. “In most of these cases the real fight is simply over identity. The plaintiffs are unlikely to ultimately win.” Orie Melvin is represented by her brother John R. Orie, who was unavailable for comment, and Pittsburgh attorney Robert O. Lampl. Lampl said the issue is one of principle. Although the complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages, Lampl said Orie Melvin offered to settle the case if the Does would print a retraction and make a “nominal donation” to a charity. Lampl said the offer was turned down. It’s important to take a stand against Web sites that “anonymously defame people,” Lampl said. “Judge Melvin is very principled on this case,” Lampl said. “She’s in it to vindicate herself and establish a principle.” Wettick’s prior opinion addressing the identity issue said that before he would allow discovery to obtain the identity of the Doe defendants, they must first be given the opportunity to establish that Orie Melvin can’t prevail in the case. He has stayed discovery on the issue until the defendants have had a chance to state their case in summary judgment proceedings. PHONE RECORDS Wettick’s latest opinion is in response to the defendants’ subpoena of telephone records of Orie Melvin’s daytime phone. The Executive Administrator of the Superior Court said it did not object to the production of the documents as long as the office can delete calls containing confidential information. The Does, agreeing to that restriction, argued that they were entitled to the remaining phone information under the Right-to-Know Act, but Wettick said Pennsylvania state courts are not governed by that act. The Does further argued that the phone records might show that calls were made to Ridge administrators or legislators around the time when Ridge was considering the appointment to the common pleas bench. Wettick said the Rules of Civil Procedure permit such discovery requests so long as they are not an “unreasonable annoyance, embarrassment, oppression, burden or expense.” Wettick said the request was too broad and violated the First Amendment right to freedom of association. “Defendants are not asking for discovery involving a limited number of telephone numbers which they have identified,” Wettick said. “Neither have defendants offered any evidence that would suggest with any reasonable degree of certainty that the discovery that they seek will establish that plaintiff made the statements described in the publication.” Wettick’s decision quashed the subpoena for phone records. Yohe said that the case “is in a unique posture right now” and although the judge has yet to force the unveiling of the identity of the Does, he might allow additional discovery if the defendants’ summary judgment motion is defeated.

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