Back to the future with the Orie family | Slag Heap
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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Back to the future with the Orie family

Posted By on Thu, Apr 8, 2010 at 5:17 PM

Courtesy of our pals at the Post-Gazette, we learn that an activist is calling on Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin to step down as a result of the charges filed against her sisters.

Gene Stilp, a Harrisburg citizen activist and a Democrat running for the state House this year, filed a complaint today against Justice Melvin with the state Judicial Conduct Board, which oversees the conduct of judges.

This would, of course, be the same Judicial Conduct Board that Orie Melvin took the piss out of just a couple months ago, in one of her first acts on the Supreme Court bench.

That ruling concerned an effort to compel the board, which investigates claims of judicial misconduct, to turn over records pertaining to the Luzerne County "kids for cash" scandal. In that scandal, you may recall, the operator of a juvenile-detention facility was accused of paying off judges to sentence kids harshly, thereby furnishing a steady stream of profit-generating detainees. 

In a tartly-worded opinion, Orie Melvin agreed that ordinarily, the judicial board should work confidentially (which it does in order to protect the reputation of judges under investigation).  This time, however, she wanted the board's records to be turned over -- not just to the state agency seeking them, but to members of general public. 

Melvin argued that by not doing more to prevent abuses in Luzerne County, the board's "procedures have been called into question by the 'kids-for-cash' scandal." And that meant the public had a right to know about how those procedures worked, or didn't. 

"[T]he question becomes just who or what are we protecting by maintaining confidentiality in this matter," she added. If the agency didn't open up its records, it "risks the appearance of an attempt to shield members of the judiciary, and those charged with judicial oversight, from public scrutiny."

Orie Melvin had campaigned for office by decrying alleged corruption -- with the Luzerne County case as Exhibit A. And it's worth remembering that Luzerne case touched on a certain Greg Zappala, who was the business partner of the juvenile-detention facility operator accused of making kickbacks.

Greg Zappala was never charged in the case, let alone found guilty of any wrongdoing. But he is, of course, the brother of District Attorney Stephen Zappala ... whose investigation of the Orie family is what prompted the complaint filed aginst Orie Melvin. Things seem to be coming full circle.

What could happen next?

At this point, anything seems possible. Maybe Orie Melvin will even start playing this old school, a la Rolf Larsen, and make all kinds of eyebrow-raising allegations against the first Zappala that comes to hand. (Her sisters have already got that ball rolling, it seems.)

Some old heads out there may recall how Larsen reacted when HE was acccused of ethical improprieties while on the Supreme Court bench a decade or two back. Then-Supreme Court justice Stephen A. Zappala -- father of the current DA -- reprimanded Larsen for talking with another judge about a case. And as the state House described in its articles of impeachment, Larsen's response was to accuse Zappala of "receiv[ing] kickbacks for directing bond work to his brother's underwriting firm," among other things. Oh, and also of "commandeering a vehicle and attempt[ing] to run Justice Larsen down." 

Those allegations proved empty, and Larsen was later impeached -- after being convicted of illegally obtaining prescription drugs. But for awhile there, he was the ringmaster of a judicial circus, a lurid spectacle Harrisburg could never hope to repeat. 

Or could it? Stay tuned.

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