Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was convicted of political corruption earlier this year, will resign from the high court effective May 1, according to a letter sent Monday to Governor Tom Corbett.
Her sentencing is set for May 7. Orie Melvin said she intends to appeal the jury verdict against her, but "in the meantime, however, the citizens of Pennsylvania deserve a fully-staffed Supreme Court."
"I believe the decision by Justice Orie Melvin to resign is the correct one," Corbett said in a written statement. "This will save taxpayers the time and expense of impeachment proceedings in the House and Senate, and allow legislators to focus on other important issues."
"Her resignation is great for Pennsylvania," said state Representative Brandon P. Neuman, D-Washington, one of the primary sponsors of one of two pieces of legislation that would have started Orie Melvin’s impeachment. "It’s the best way to benefit taxpayers and get a full complement on the Supreme Court."
Orie Melvin’s resignation is better for taxpayers because the impeachment process could have been very long and costs taxpayers a lot of money, Neuman said.
Pennsylvania Bar Association President Thomas G. Wilkinson Jr., of Cozen O’Connor in Philadelphia, said that not having an odd number of justices to break ties leaves parties in "the proverbial lurch" with Superior Court decisions being effectively affirmed.
"We are pleased with this development because it helps to restore, or at least to get us, on the path of restoring the integrity of the justice system," Wilkinson said.
The bulk of Orie Melvin’s letter spoke of the three decades she has spent in the judiciary as a trial-court judge and as an appellate-court judge because of her "fervent hope that my service over the past three decades will not be tainted by the circumstances surrounding my departure."
"It is with deep regret and a broken heart that I hereby tender my resignation as justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court," Orie Melvin also said in her letter to Corbett.
Orie Melvin’s sister, former state Senator Jane Orie, also resigned her elected position when she was convicted of using public resources on her senatorial campaign and her sister’s judicial campaigns instead of on constituent services or legislative affairs.
Orie Melvin was found guilty February 21 of three third-degree felonies of diversion of services, one third-degree felony count of criminal conspiracy to commit diversion of services, one second-degree misdemeanor of misapplication of entrusted property, and one second-degree misdemeanor of criminal conspiracy to commit tampering with or fabricating physical evidence.
Ronald G. Ruman, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of State, said that it is too late to put Orie Melvin’s high-court slot onto the ballot for 2013 because the time period to circulate petitions to get on the primary ballot is closed. Ruman also said it’s too late because the state constitution states that open elected positions can only go on the ballot if they become open 10 months or earlier before the general election.
An interim appointee to the Supreme Court could serve through January 2016.
"I will submit a nominee to the Senate as soon as practical within that timeframe to bring our Supreme Court back to its full complement of seven justices," Corbett said in a statement.
Any nominee by Corbett must be confirmed by two-thirds of the senators, but the Democrats hold 23 spots in the 50-member body.
State Senator Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, minority chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said, "No candidate who is perceived by the Democratic caucus to be ideologically partisan will be confirmed."
Philadelphia Bar Association Chancellor Kathleen D. Wilkinson called for Corbett to nominate a qualified candidate as soon as possible "so the state Supreme Court can be restored to its full complement of seven justices to ensure unfettered access to justice for the citizens of Pennsylvania."
While Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice J. Michael Eakin told the Philadelphia Bar Association last week that he thinks the high court would have the power to appoint an interim justice to fill the spot of Orie Melvin, he said he didn’t think the court would do it as a "separation of power issue."
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts’ Lynn Marks said in a statement that Orie Melvin being found guilty by a jury of her peers "only could have happened in a system where all judges are elected in expensive, partisan elections. Judges should not be forced to be in the fundraising and campaigning business in order to win a seat on the bench. This debacle should spur legislators to move forward" on bills that would put on the ballot a proposal to amend the constitution to select appellate-court judges through an appointed process.
Orie Melvin’s attorney, William "Skip" Arbuckle III of the Mazza Law Group in State College, Centre County, requested that the Court of Judicial Discipline extend the deadline for Orie Melvin to file omnibus motions to May 30, according to court papers.
Arbuckle said in court papers they are making the request so the prosecutor for judicial misconduct, the Judicial Conduct Board, can make a decision once Orie Melvin’s conviction is made final with her sentencing on whether the JCB will proceed in the Court of Judicial Discipline "based on the felony convictions alone or also on the underlying charges as separate ethics violations."
Orie Melvin said in her letter that she is proud of the 8,000 decisions she has participated in over the last 15 years.
"I demonstrated respect for taxpayers by refusing over $52,000, which constituted the Act 44 pay raise and cost of living adjustments between 2005 and 2009 and returning the net amount after taxes to the Department of Treasury, by declining the automobile expense allowance during my 14.5 years as an appellate judge (valued at $105,400), and by consistently maintaining low office expenses," Orie Melvin said in her resignation letter.
Orie Melvin also cited her involvement in developing the first domestic violence court, the alternative sentencing program for indigent and juvenile offenders and a housing court program for the Pittsburgh Municipal Court.