Despite what some might think, the sound that came from the courtroom of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Lester Nauhaus on Tuesday morning was not to be mistaken for a slap on the wrist. It was the sound of state taxpayers being slapped in the face.
Before Judge Nauhaus stood disgraced former state Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who was convicted on Feb. 21 of six of seven counts, including conspiracy, theft of services and misapplication of government funds.
The shorthand version is that the convicted felon ripped off Pennsylvania taxpayers as she did campaign work on the state’s time and dime. The public was her victim. So was the judicial system she shamed.
Judge Nauhaus knew the seriousness of the charges. “These are felonies,” he told her.
He recognized the damage she had done. “You ruined an awful lot of people,” he said. “This was not a single error of judgment.”
He acknowledged that she never was forthright about her crimes. “You have consistently refused to accept responsibility for any of the wrong you have done,” he said. He even used the word “shame” for her effect on the judiciary.
But he also said he didn’t think she was evil. He didn’t think prison is a place for those who are not dangerous and he said it would cost the taxpayers a fortune. So after all that tough talk, which might have been the prelude to the justice she deserved, he threw a tissue in her direction.
He sentenced Orie Melvin to three years’ house arrest with two years’ probation to follow. She must pay $55,000 in fines and do community service three days a week in a soup kitchen. Now the judicial system is doubly shamed — first by the former justice’s actions and now with the perception established by Judge Nauhaus that justice for the high and mighty in Pennsylvania is not the same as that for everyone else.