Fair Courts E-lert: Allegheny County DA Charges State Supreme Court Justice Melvin

May 21, 2012
Judicial Misconduct

1.            On Friday, Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin was charged with nine criminal charges related to allegations that she used state-paid staff for campaign work in 2010. The charges consist of three counts of theft of services, two counts of conspiracy, one count of solicitation to tamper with or fabricate evidence, two counts of official oppression and one count of misapplication of property, according to a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article.  In a letter to Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, Justice Melvin’s lawyer maintained that she “denies any criminal wrongdoing and will vigorously defend these politically motivated criminal charges,” but also informed the Court that Justice Melvin was “voluntarily recusing herself from all judicial duties pending resolution of the criminal charges.”  Meanwhile, a Philadelphia Weekly blog post argues that switching from Pennsylvania’s current system of electing judges to a merit-based judicial appointment system would help mitigate soaring judicial election costs and could potentially increase the diversity of the bench.

Paula Reed Ward, State Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin Expected to be Charged Today, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 18, 2012; Bobby Kerlik Brad Bumsted And Jeremy Boren, Allegheny County DA Charges State Supreme Court Justice Melvin, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 18, 2012; Randy Lobasso, Should Pennsylvania Judges be ‘Elected’ or ‘Selected’?, Philadelphia Weekly, May 15, 2012.

2.            In a Wisconsin State Journal commentary, former State Bar President Thomas Basting criticized the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s recent vote to not reappoint the chairman of the state’s judicial discipline commission.  Although a nominating committee had recommended chairman Dawson for reappointment, the court voted 4-3 against reappointment.  Describing the vote as “hypocritical” and “retaliatory,” Basting noted that in particular, Justice David Prosser should have recused himself because he was personally invested in the matter, as the commission recently brought an ethics charge against Prosser.

Thomas J. Basting Sr.: Actions of Justices Cause Loss of Respect, Wisconsin State Journal, May 15, 2012.

State Judicial Elections

3.            “What do the Ten Commandments, kung fu fighting and ethics lapses have in common?”  According to the Star-Telegram, “[t]hey are all relevant to a lively May 29 Republican primary for two seats on the Texas Supreme Court.” This year, three sitting justices are running for re-election: while Justice Don Willett and Justice David Medina face challengers in next week’s primary, Justice Nathan Hecht is unopposed in the primary but will face a challenge in the general election.  Meanwhile, a commentary in the Houston Chronicle looks at the pending case against Tom DeLay—in which three Republican judges have already recused themselves because of conflicts of interest or political concerns and a Democratic judge is being asked by DeLay’s attorney to step aside—and concludes that it “serves as an important reminder of why electing judges – especially with partisan labels – distorts Texas justice. Before being sent to The Slammer, even The Hammer deserves an impartial hearing.”

Yamil Berard,Candidates Duke it out in Races for Texas Supreme Court, Star-Telegram, May 17, 2012; Patricia Hart, Delay Case Shows Why Electing Judges Distorts Justice, Houston Chronicle, Tuesday, May 15, 2012; Chuck Lindell, Supreme Court Challengers Say Court is too Pro-Business, American-Statesman, May 13, 2012.

Diversity on the Bench

4.            Last week, the Virginia General Assembly rejected the nomination of Tracy Thorne-Begland for a state district court judgeship.  According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Thorne-Begland—who would have become the first openly gay judge in Virginia—was opposed by several conservative legislators because he supports same-sex marriage and previously challenged the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.  Although the House voted 33-31 to confirm Thorne-Begland, the Senate voted along party lines to end the General Assembly session without voting on the nomination, effectively rendering it defunct.  Prior to the vote, several prominent Republicans, including Governor Robert McDonnell, expressed support for Thorne-Begland, according to the Dispatch, and the legislature’s rejection of his nomination has received national attention.A Washington Post editorial described the outcome as a triumph for “bigotry and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation” while the New York Times noted that “[t]he rejection comes as the country is in the midst of a roiling debate over same-sex marriage that has placed the civil rights of gays and lesbians in the national spotlight.”

Jim Nolan, Thorne-Begland's Boss Says Judgeship Rejection 'Embarrassment' for Va., Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 15, 2012; Bigotry Blocks a Gay Virginian from The Bench, Washington Post, May 15, 2012; Laura Vozzella, House of Delegates Rejects Gay Judge Tracy Thorne-Begland, Washington Post, May 15, 2012; Sabrina Tavernise, Gay Prosecutor is Denied Virginia Judgeship Despite Bipartisan Support, New York Times, May 15, 2012; Evan Mcmorris-Santoro, Virginia Gov. Bob Mcdonnell Evolves on Gay Judges, TMP, May 15, 2012.

Court Resources

5.            After an additional $544 million in budget cuts for California’s courts were announced, the Sacramento Business Journal noted that members of the California judiciary are worrying that “Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to whack trial court funding by $544 million this fiscal year will seriously compromise public access to justice.” And speaking to the San Francisco Appeal, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye called the cuts “devastating and disheartening.” Meanwhile, across the country cuts to state judiciary budgets continue to cause alarm.  In Georgia, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Huntstein urged the legal community to inform the public how continued cutbacks threaten judicial independence, according to a Savannah Morning News article. In Alabama, Mobile County Circuit Judge wrote a Press-Register commentary entitled, “Constitution mandates sufficient court funds.”

Kathy Robertson, Proposed Budget Cuts Hit Court System, Sacramento Business Journal, May 15, 2012; Richard K. De Atley, Revised Budget Cuts Could Devastate Inland Courts, Press-Enterprise, May 15, 2012.