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February 28, 2013

You be the prosecutor: what state sentence should be sought for Joan Orie Melvin and her sister?

OriesRegular readers know that, often on the eve of a high-profile or unique sentencing proceeding, I urge folks to imagine being the judge and to propose a just and effective sentence for the defendant.  (See, e.g., prior "you be the judge" posts involving a rouge federal judge, a Ponzi schemer, the "Spam King", and an NBA star.)   Earlier this month, however, I generated a notable sentencing debate by changing the script via this post in which I encouraged folks to imagine being a federal prosecutor tasked with recommending a federal sentence for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife after it was clear that they intend to plead guilty to political corruption charges stemming from their misuse of campaign finance monies.  (See "You be the prosecutor: what federal sentence should be sought for Jesse Jackson Jr. and his wife?".)

As the title of this post reveals, I think it valuable to encourage readers again to think as a prosecutor about sentencing recommendations for political corruption.  But, as explained via this local story, "Judge sets May 7 sentencing for Joan Orie Melvin," the high-profile upcoming sentencing I have in mind is in state court and concerns a prominent state jurist and her sister after a trial conviction on multiple charges:

Allegheny County Judge Lester Nauhaus has scheduled suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin's sentencing for May 7, the judge's staff said Wednesday.

A jury on Feb. 21 found Melvin, 56, of Marshall guilty on six criminal charges dealing with her misuse of state-paid employees to campaign for a seat on the high court in 2003 and 2009. The jury deadlocked on a seventh charge of official oppression.

The jury also convicted her sister and former staffer, Janine Orie, 58, of McCandless on six related charges.  Information on her sentencing date wasn't available.  A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, 51, of McCandless is serving 2 1⁄2 years to 10 years in state prison on similar charges.

Obviously, the exact specifics of the crimes and the political positions of Jesse Jackson Jr. and Joan Orie Melvin are quite different.  Nevertheless, the underlying criminal behavior is arguably similar, as is the basic background of the offenders in relevant respects (e.g., both convicted defendants came from prominent political families, had a record of electorial success, and have considerable parental responsibilities).  Of course, Jackson Jr. and his wife are due to be sentenced in the federal no-parole system in which judges must impose exact sentences subject only to a 15% reduction for good prison behavior, whereas Melvin and her sister are to be sentenced in the Pennsylvania with-parole system in which judges general impose sentences in term of broad ranges.  Further, the Jacksons pleaded guilty and have expressed remorse, whereas Melvin and his sister both execised their trial rights and were found guilty on nearly all charges by a jury.

Differencea aside, I am eager to hear what readers think state prosecutors ought to be recommending as a sentence for Joan Orie Melvin and her sister.  Do you think they merit a longer or shorter sentence that what the Jacksons are facing?  Do you think the fact that state sentencing in Pennsylvania involves possibility of parole should lead to state prosecutor to urge for a much longer sentence in the Melvin case than federal prosecutors are urging in the Jackson case?  Do you disagree with my general notion that these crimes are in some ways comparable given that they were prosecuted in different jurisdictions (even though, I think, the feds could have prosecuted both cases)?

I raise these points not only because I see high-profile, white-collar sentences as provide a great setting for debating sentencing issues, but also because I think efforts to compare the sentencing treatment of seemingly similar defendants can often distract from the task of seeking to impose the most just and effective sentence for a singular defendant.  Ergo my interest in reader views on both the upcoming sentencing in this high-profile state political corruption case and how it should be compared to the upcoming sentencing of the Jacksons in federal court.

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February 28, 2013 at 01:42 PM | Permalink


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Reimburse for time of state employees .
Forbid the judge from representing another in ANY Federal court .

A short prison term would allow her time to reflect .

Posted by: Anon. #2.71828 | Feb 28, 2013 1:54:07 PM

Reimbursement. Forbid them from holding any government job (state or federal), whether by appointment, election, or hiring. One year in prison.

Posted by: Nazim | Feb 28, 2013 2:12:12 PM

I don't know enough specifics of Pennsylvania sentencing guidelines or practices to make any specific recommendation. I think the possibility of parole should not enter into the recommendation. That's ultimately up to the parole board. In Michigan, where I practice, there are flow charts available that predict the likelihood of parole, based on various factors. If there is something similar in Pennsylvania, I imagine the likelihood of parole can be predicted with a good degree of confidence. Besides, these are females,who are in trouble less often than males, and they are older than the average first-time-off-to-prison offender. They're not likely to be in a position to repeat such offenses again. That said, I'm especially troubled by the abuse of high office to continue in high office, and I think that merits the ex-judge, at least, a higher-than-normal recommendation, and sentence. We'll find out something similar when our former Michigan Supreme Court justice is sentenced in Federal Court in the near future for bank fraud, regarding a short sale on an underwater home.

Posted by: Greg Jones | Feb 28, 2013 2:14:47 PM

Has it really been almost two decades since a sitting Supreme Court Justice in Pennsylvania has been convicted of a felony? Wikipedia says that the colorful-to-infamous Hon. Rolf Larsen got just a couple years probation (one year each on two counts of conviction, can't tell if they ran consecutive or concurrent), plus removal from judicial office, when he was sentenced back in 1994. (It seems redundant for the legislature to have gotten him out of office separately via impeachment proceedings, but maybe that was belt-and-suspenders in case he got his criminal conviction vacated on appeal.) His offenses of conviction also involved misuse of court staff - he supposedly didn't want there to be any paper trail that he was under a psychiatrist's care (not an inherently unreasonable concern for a controversial public figure with a number of high-profile political enemies) so he arranged for his shrink to write prescriptions for Valium and the like in the name of various court employees who would go to the pharmacy, get the pills, and then turn them over to His Honor. You decide whether that's better or worse than having them help your campaign while on the public payroll.

Posted by: JWB | Feb 28, 2013 3:07:37 PM

As is my usual stance in such cases I would desire that both be executed. There should simply be no tolerance for misconduct by those taxpayers are given no choice but to trust.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Feb 28, 2013 5:13:45 PM

I have called for the execution of white collar criminals when the damage has exceeded the market valuation of life, $6 million. In this case, the infraction was of an unvalidated election regulation. If I give to a candidate, I do not see much difference between his buying himself a nice piece of jewelry vs. staying at the Ritz-Carlton on campaign payments rather than at the Motel 6. He is the beneficiary of campaign donations, and I will be a beneficiary of access to his ear during his government function.

This defendant is not dangerous. She merely stretched the rules too much. She should be sent home, work and repay her debts.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Feb 28, 2013 6:57:52 PM

By the guidelines, at the middle of the upside deviation.

Posted by: Jeff Spangler | Feb 28, 2013 7:06:50 PM

No prison. Court fees and treble damages (reimbursement to the state and the rest to a charity of the court's choosing). Probation with a restriction against working in government in any capacity.

Posted by: TarlsQtr1 | Mar 1, 2013 9:02:45 AM

I don't really have an opinion about the sentence, but for some reason I find it highly amusing that the recommendations from readers of this blog range from probation to death. Talk about a case for guideline sentencing!

Posted by: vachesacree | Mar 1, 2013 3:47:33 PM

I am more troubled by this case than I am the Jesse Jackson case as it seems to me that at least here an actual crime was committed. I still lean towards a sentence of probation and restitution, however, because I think that is all that is necessary to deter.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 1, 2013 7:13:32 PM

BTW, I do not see this crime and the Jackson crime as similar. The crucial difference is the source of the money that was misspent.

In the Jackson case he spent money that was campaign money on himself. The money that was "misspent" was money that was donated to Jackson by Jackson supporters for Jackson's benefit. In my mind a campaign donation is the equivalent of an general purpose loan (think credit card) whereas the law treats it more like a secured loan (think auto, home). So in essence Jackson's "crime" was that he took money than was intended for an auto loan and spent it on a vacation to Paris. If there was a violation of trust it was a private violation. Those supporters who want there many back should get and that should be the end of it. It is retarded that such behavior constitutes a crime that can land some one in prison.

The situation in PA is quite a bit different. The resources that were misspent where resources that were never intended for the personal benefit the Justice in the first place. She had access to those resources solely for the reason she was a elected government official. The source of those funds was the public treasury, a group that represents all the citizens of PA both those who supported the judge and those who did not. Because of that truth I see a genuine violation of of the /public trust/ in this situation and I take that with a greater degree of seriousness.

Posted by: Daniel | Mar 1, 2013 7:40:41 PM

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