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Nazareth, Pa., United States

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Why Judge Joan Orie Melvin Should Not Be Retained on Pa.'s Superior Court

Yesterday, I told you about Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Thomas Saylor, and why I'm voting against his retention. Six appellate jurists besides Saylor will be on the ballot on November 6. These are judges of the Superior and Commonwealth Court. Today's post focuses on one of these judges, Joan Orie Melvin. I'll be voting against her retention, too. The purpose of this post is to provide you with facts from which you can conclude, on your own, whether we can afford to keep a judge like her.

What is the Superior Court?

Often called the court of second guess, the superior court is where most appeals from a trial court are heard. They also approve wiretap requests. The vast majority of the 8,201 appeals filed last year, were from criminal convictions. Although there are fifteen jurists, they usually sit in three-judge panels. Because the supremes are so reluctant to hear appeals, the superior court is usually the last bastion of hope for those seeking justice.

The fifteen superior court judges, whose annual salary is $165,342, are initially elected for a ten year term. After that, judges are retained by a simple "yes" or "no" statewide vote. Mandatory retirement occurs at age 70. The president judge, whose yearly take is $170,442, is elected by fellow judges once every five years.

Joan Orie Melvin is a Politically Ambitious Woman

A Pittsburgh native, Melvin first managed to get herself appointed as a judge in 1990, filling a vacancy. At that time, she had only been practicing law nine years. The following year, as an incumbent, she was elected to a full term as a common pleas judge. But she never served that term. A mere seven years later, she was on the campaign warpath again, this time winning her current seat on the superior court.

During the time she spent traipsing across the state, picking up votes, she pretty much ignored her responsibilities as a common pleas judge. An investigative report by a team of eleven reporters at the Post-Gazette, cast a very public spotlight on a very unresponsive Melvin, a person who obviously considers her personal ambition more important than her work as a judge.

Melvin thumbed her nose at a six-week trial term because a pesky little jury trial might interfere with her quest to become an appellate judge. Her courtroom was "virtually shut down . . . for several weeks" while she "spent numerous weekdays out of town campaigning."

After stewing for a few years on this intermediate court, she decided to take a stab for a seat with the supremes in 2003. She and Democrat Max Baer engaged in a money war, spending an obscene $3.34 million over one seat on the state high court. This exceeds the total amount spent in all judicial races during the previous two years. Forty-three per cent of this money came from lawyers, a drastic increase from the ten percent total in the 2001 race.

Although the Code of Judicial Conduct clearly permits judicial candidates to speak out on issues, Melvin still refused to do so. Max Baer, who eventually beat her, said this during a televised debate. "I think you have a right to know what I feel, what I believe in, who I am." And he chastised Melvin for hiding her personal views during a televised debate with him, but expressing her views on tort reform and abortion in comments to Melvin-friendly audiences.

As you've probably guessed, Melvin is politically connected. Her sister, Jane Orie, just happens to be a state senator. Incidentally, she's a member of the judiciary committee, too. According to The Insider, these two sisters have a "well-known long-standing political feud" with fellow Republican Melissa Hart. "If Hart came out for light, the Ories would back dark."

Judges like Melvin prove Norco DA John Morganelli's point - "judges are probably the most political animals in the political and legal jungle." But the Pennsylvania Bar Association still recommends her retention. That's no shocker, considering that these sycophants recommended the retention of insurance fraud Defendant Michael (call me Judge) Joyce, too.

Thin-Skinned Melvin Tries Some Legal Intimidation Against Cyber-Critics

In addition to being a political animal, Melvin is also a thin-skinned bully. She proved that through five years of quixotic litigation in two separate states over anonymous comments posted on a Pittsburgh-based political gossip site. A group of John Does had criticized her "misconduct" in asking Governor Ridge to appoint someone she knew to a judgeship. I'm not sure how that even constitutes defamation, but I guess it must be per se defamation to criticize a superior court judge.

First, she sued in Virginia, trying to learn the identity of the anonymous cretins who had sullied her sparkling reputation. She got nowhere.

She had a little more success on her home field when she filed a second lawsuit in Allegheny County. But America Online branded Melvin's attempt at intimidation "an illegitimate use of the courts to silence and retaliate against speakers." And Witold Walczak, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh ACLU, noted the important role of anonymous speech in a democracy. "Not only did The Federalist Papers and Thomas Paine's Common Sense, both printed pseudonymously, change the course of American history, but evidence today suggests that anonymous Internet speech played a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union."

The state supreme court eventually agreed, and ruled Melvin had to prove financial loss before demanding the identity of her critics. "[G]enerally, the constitutional right to anonymous free speech is deeply rooted in public policy that goes beyond this particular litigation, and ... it falls within the class of rights that are too important to be denied review."

Thankfully, Melvin abandoned her legal bullying. Never admitting she had been wrong, her attorney claimed it would have taken too many years.

Melvin Sues Again, Over That Payraise

Now with her defamation suit out of the way, Melvin took politics by litigation to a new level by suing to demand that the state pay her less money. She lost that suit, too. Here's what one of those dastardly anonymous cyber-critics said. "[F]or a sitting judge to seek a court order barring the payment to her of a pay raise--a raise the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had already ruled could not constitutionally be repealed--is an abuse of the very judicial system she purportedly represents. I will certainly vote 'no' on her retention."

Gee, I wonder if she's going to sue him.

Her Mean-Spirited Record From the Bench

Melvin has 139 written opinions online, and 31 of these are concurring or dissenting opinions. These opinions, quite frankly, reveal a mean-spirited person who should not be sitting in judgement of anyone. In her little world, juvenile adjudications would count as criminal convictions under the "three strikes" act. The fourth amendment protection against unreasonable search and seizure would be meaningless. An insurance company contractually required to pay for a building in disrepair would not be required to do so unless that building collapsed. A father who disciplines his daughter would be subjected to a PFA order. On appeal, she would make her own credibility determinations on witnesses she never saw or heard, forbidden territory for an appellate judge.


Melvin might be a gifted politician, but she's not a gifted judge. Her attempt at legal intimidation could be expected from a major corporation, but a slapsuit from a sitting judge is bizarre. And her second suit over the payraise is pure grandstanding. Her money gathering, especially from lawyers, is obscene. And her contrarian opinions reveal an utter lack of compassion.Update: John Micek, with just a tad of sarcasm, tells us that PACleanSweep founder Russ Diamond may remove Melvin from his judicial hit list, directed at every judge up for retention. "If Judge Orie Melvin has paid back the net amount of everything she's received since the pay raise began, we'll definitely take her off our list of 'No' judges." Based on her entire record and history, I could never vote to retain her.


Chris Casey said...

Great research, B O, Which Gulag do you think they will haul you off to?

Anonymous said...

Great research. Great blogging.

Anonymous said...


Are we going to go through each
one. "Boring" I said all must
go. Don't you care about our Country? Well! Why should you?

Just levels of channels that really
never have to meet; if you really work at it. No reason at all.

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 10:14,

If you find this boring, it's because you find democracy boring.

It is precisely because I do care about my country that I am examining the record of each appellate judge up for retention. The decisions they make have a dramatic effect on our daily lives, but few of us know a thing about them.

The MSM supplies very little detail about these candidates at election time, and I'm trying to fill an information gap.

Anonymous said...

Now that we know who you don't like, please give us a list of the judges you do like with the same 700+ word opinion

Bernie O'Hare said...

Anon 11:28,

Thanks. That's exactly what I intend to do. I am filling an information gap.

Bill White noted this information gap himself. "The lack of information is most acute where it can do the most serious damage, in our idiotic system of electing state judges, the vast majority of whom we know nothing about. It pretty much guarantees that the bozo quotient will be high, which is one reason why we get so many outrageous court decisions."

You're free to read, or not read, anything on this blog.

wexfordbob said...

Let’s see you are opposed to ambition, dissent, judges refusing pay raises they believe are illegal, judges with relatives in public office, and judges taking a tough position. Can I assume then that you oppose US Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, and US Supreme Court Justice John Roberts?

If you readers base their votes upon gossip rather than issues of law, experience, and judicial temperament they will get exactly what they deserve, another judge working for the cronies of Governor Rendell.

I have no official association with any of the candidates. I am not a member of political committee and you won't find my name on their list of contributors. But I have met with the Judge Melvin, Judge Allen, and other qualified judges. I urge you to discuss their commitment to limited government, life, and strict constitutional principles rather than gossip from jealous competitors.

Wexford Bob

Anonymous said...

Good blog and research. There is one clarification that should be made, however. There were not a group of John Does behind the Grant Street 99 Website, which was sued by Judge Melvin, but just one creator and author.