PITTSBURGH (Legal Newsline) -- Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, along with her sister, who worked with Melvin as an administrative assistant, were found guilty Thursday of corruption.

According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Melvin and her sister, Janine Orie, were found guilty of corruption for using her office staff to perform campaign work in 2003 and 2009.

Melvin and Orie were also found guilty of theft of services, conspiracy and misapplication of government funds. In addition, Orie was convicted of tampering with evidence and solicitation, the Post-Gazette reported.

One count -- official oppression -- against Melvin could not be decided by the jury. According to the newspaper, Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus declared the jurors hung on that count.

Melvin's sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, was convicted on similar public corruption charges last year and subsequently sentenced to 2 and 1/2 to 10 years in state prison.

In May, Melvin was suspended by the state's high court in the wake of the pending charges.

The justice will remain suspended without pay from the Court pending action by Pennsylvania's Court of Judicial Discipline -- the disciplinary body for state court judges.

According to the Post-Gazette, Nauhaus did not set a sentencing date for Melvin or Janine Orie; however, a pre-sentence report was ordered for the sisters.

Justice at Stake, a nonpartisan, nonprofit campaign aimed at keeping courts fair and impartial, said in a statement Thursday that Melvin's conviction highlights the need for changing the way judges are selected in the state.

"When judges are forced to raise money like politicians, it compounds political pressure on our courts and increases the risk of corruption," said Bert Brandenburg, JAS executive director.

Polling in 2010 by the reform group Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts showed that 62 percent of state residents favored a merit-based selection system for choosing appellate judges and an overwhelming majority -- 93 percent -- said they wanted the opportunity to vote on whether their state should change the way it selects its judges.

"Judges should be chosen based on their qualifications, not partisan politics or their ability to fundraise," Brandenburg said. "Justice at Stake supports the efforts of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to let Pennsylvanians choose a merit selection system."

Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a JAS partner group.

Campaign fundraising in judicial elections nationwide soared from $83.3 million in 1990-99 to $206.9 million in 2000-09.

Pennsylvania ranked as the third highest state for total spending on judicial elections during the latter decade, according to "The New Politics of Judicial Elections 2000-2009," by JAS and its partners.

"While the vast majority of judges who campaign for election comply with the law, merit selection protects judges from the pitfalls associated with running for election, including corruption," Brandenburg said.

"Merit selection has captured public support in Pennsylvania because citizens want judges to be accountable to the law, not to campaign supporters."

State Sen. Anthony Hardy Williams, a Democrat who has represented Pennsylvania's 8th District since 1998, agrees. Williams says a judicial merit selection bill would help avoid such future "spectacles."

Last month, the senator announced he filed a merit selection bill to "ensure the integrity of the bench."

Republican state Sen. Richard Alloway is the lead co-sponsor of the legislation, which seeks to amend the state constitution and reform how state appellate court jurists are selected.

Lower court judges -- from magisterial district judges to judges on the Common Pleas Court -- would continue to be elected.

Under the bill, judges serving on the Commonwealth, Superior and Supreme courts would be appointed by the governor, who would select from a defined list of candidates generated by an independent, bipartisan commission.

The proposed 15-member Appellate Court Nominating Commission would be made up of seven public members and eight members appointed by elected officials; four picked by the governor and four by the General Assembly.

All would be age 18 or older and must come from a minimum of four different counties and be a resident of the state for at least one year prior to service, which would be a four-year term.

The nominating commission would include both attorneys and non-attorneys, and its members would represent the state's "diverse geographic and political makeup."

The commission would activate whenever an appellate court vacancy arises and would provide a list of five candidates per vacancy to the governor within 90 days.

The diverse judicial candidates in the pool would be attorneys licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania who have practiced law or worked in a law-related profession for a minimum of 10 years and have a solid professional and civic reputation.

Judges so selected would stand for a public retention vote on a separate ballot with no party designation at the end of his or her term.

Williams said creating a mechanism for forming the nominating commission -- including the method of choosing its public members -- will be determined later, but no member of the nominating commission could be a political or appointed office holder.

The senator has admitted the bill opens a "lengthy but necessary" dialogue on reshaping the appellate courts. Constitutional amendments require passage in both chambers twice and voted on by the general public prior to adoption.

"We cannot have a society of laws if those sworn to uphold them are seen as willing to disregard them," Williams said last month. "The courts are our last stance. We can't have people thinking the deck is stacked. That's no way to function in a society.

"Lawmakers are drawn from the people, but our courts are supposed to be our gold standard."

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at jessica@legalnewsline.com.

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