The judge who sentenced former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin for her conviction on political corruption charges fashioned an unusual punishment Tuesday, sentencing the former jurist to three years of house arrest and ordering her to send a picture of herself with an apology written on it to every member of the Pennsylvania judiciary.
Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas Judge Lester G. Nauhaus also fashioned an unusual sentence for Orie Melvin’s sister and co-defendant, Janine Orie. Janine Orie, who worked in Orie Melvin’s judicial chambers, was sentenced to one year of house arrest.
"At least 500 members of the judiciary are tarnished by" Orie Melvin’s actions, Nauhaus said.
The corruption was besides the point, Nauhaus said, because the use of an estimated $34,000 in public resources for political campaign work was not going to make a difference in Orie Melvin winning a seat on the high court when Supreme Court campaigns now cost north of $1 million.
"There was no earthly reason to do any of this," because Janine Orie could have just taken a leave of absence to work on Orie Melvin’s campaign, Nauhaus said.
Nauhaus also ordered both sisters to send letters of apology to every member of Orie Melvin’s staff and every member of the senatorial staff of their sister and former state senator, Jane Orie, that they ordered to conduct political work even though it is not allowed under the law for government employees to do so.
Jane Orie is serving prison time in her separate prosecution for similar crimes. Orie was convicted in 2012 on 14 of the 24 corruption charges she faced related to using public resources for political campaigns.
The judge also ordered the two sisters to send an apology to every member of their family.
Orie Melvin already has apologized to some of the members of her family. When it was the former justice’s turn to speak, Orie Melvin turned to look toward the gallery where some of her children were seated and apologized to them for the loss and suffering they have experienced.
Nauhaus also ordered Orie Melvin to serve in a soup kitchen three times a week, to pay a $55,000 fine, and to not use the honorific of justice for the three years she will be on house arrest and for the two years she will be on probation.
While Orie Melvin resigned from the Supreme Court at the end of March, Nauhaus said that, as a member of the judiciary, he was removing her. Nauhaus also said his reading of the law is that Orie Melvin’s conviction of infamous crimes meant she was removed from the bench as of the February 21 verdict and that the governor has only until May 21 to submit a nominee for an interim justice. It has been the position of Governor Tom Corbett’s administration that the 90 days began running when Orie Melvin’s resignation became effective May 1.
A gubernatorial spokesman said that the constitution requires removal upon a conviction, which becomes official when a defendant is sentenced. So the 90 days would have started with Orie Melvin’s sentencing if they had not already started because of her resignation, he said.
"My reading of the law is she was removed on the 21st of February," the judge said. "I wonder if the governor knows that."
Lawrence Claus of the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office had asked for the sisters to be sentenced to state prison, but the judge said that there was no point to sentencing public figures to prison in an effort to get other political leaders to act ethically "because nobody thinks they’ll get caught. It’s a silly deterrent."
Nauhaus also said it would be expensive for taxpayers to pay for the women’s incarceration, and the public purse has already lost enough because of their crimes.
The judge, however, was scathing toward Orie Melvin, saying that her "arrogance was stunning."
While she is not an evil person, Nauhaus said, Orie Melvin thought of herself as a person who could choose what laws to follow and that she probably still thinks that she did not do anything wrong.
The judge’s tone, by turns, was sarcastic, like when he told Claus that he was not a juror and that the prosecutor did not need to make a closing argument, and when he asked Orie Melvin’s attorney, Patrick A. Casey, if the judge was still in charge of the trial. But Nauhaus was at times solicitous, like when he spoke kindly to one of Orie Melvin’s daughters, Nina Melvin, who began crying when she asked the judge to not take their mother away from her and her five other siblings.
Orie Melvin called three witnesses: her daughter; her brother, James Orie; and Father Scott Seethaler.
While James Orie said that his sister was driven to become a member of the judiciary for noble reasons, Claus said that "her ability to move up and up and up — that was paramount above everything."
The judge, upon seeing the priest, said he did not need to give an oath to tell the truth.
Seethaler, a Franciscan priest dressed in a chocolate brown robe with a white rope at the waist, said that he had started to counsel the Orie family after the death of one sibling, Judy Orie, and that he continued to counsel the family during the criminal prosecutions.
The trial had changed Orie Melvin’s life and humiliated her, Seethaler said.
The judge asked what the New Testament says about arrogance, and the priest said, "Jesus said the first shall be last and the last shall be first." People are not to promote themselves and they are not to seek places of grandeur, Seethaler said.
Casey asked the judge to consider the "enormity of the decency of the person that is before you," and to consider that Orie Melvin would no longer be a judge after 25 years, has surrendered her law license and has lost her reputation.
The judge called his own witness when he asked a representative from the county probation department to explain that house arrest means that the sisters will have to wear ankle bracelets and that they are not allowed to leave their homes, even to go onto their porches, without judicial permission. The only exception Nauhaus made to their house arrest was to allow them to attend church and for Orie Melvin to serve in a soup kitchen.
Janine Orie’s counsel, James DePasquale, said his client "was a secretary, she was not a … mover and shaker." But the judge countered that if Orie was just a secretary then "I wasn’t at the trial."
Orie was the one person that Orie Melvin would have listened to on not using the resources of the judicial chambers for campaigning, Nauhaus said.
"She couldn’t have possibly been ignorant of" the fact that what was going on in those chambers was against the law, the judge said.
Orie Melvin faced seven counts, including three counts of felony theft of services, one felony count of conspiracy to commit theft of services, and one count each of misdemeanor misapplication of government property, official oppression and conspiracy to tamper with evidence.
The jury hung on one count of official oppression against Orie Melvin.
Janine Orie also was found guilty on all but one count.