Judge Jeffrey Manning also refused to appoint a fellow Common Pleas judge to preside over Justice Joan Orie Melvin's preliminary hearing on July 9. Manning rejected Melvin's argument that the case might be too complex, noting local district judges "routinely hear serious and complex criminal cases."
Melvin's attorney, Patrick Casey, told The Associated Press he was "not prepared to comment at this time" when informed of Manning's six-page ruling on Thursday. Melvin, a Republican, has claimed her prosecution by Democratic District Attorney Stephen Zappala Jr. is politically motivated, a charge the prosecutor has denied.
Melvin, 56, of the Pittsburgh suburb of Marshall Township, is charged with illegally using her taxpayer-funded Superior Court staff to work on her 2003 and 2009 campaigns for a seat on the state's highest court. Melvin lost in 2003, but was elected to the Supreme Court in 2009.
Melvin sought to bar any Allegheny County judge from presiding at her trial because she has run politically against two sitting judges and served with others, but primarily because a key witness against her, Lisa Sasinoski, is married to a sitting judge. Sasinoski is Melvin's former law clerk.
Manning, however, said he doesn't have the power to force other county judges to recuse themself from hearing Melvin's case. Manning said only the judge eventually assigned to the case can assess his or her ability to be impartial—and can recuse himself or herself at that time.
According to the criminal complaint, Sasinoski told the grand jury that Melvin's aide and sister, Janine Orie, ordered her to work the polls for Melvin in the 2003 election. Sasinoski testified that she told Melvin after the election that the illegal campaign activities needed to end; the next day, she was fired.
The grand jury found evidence that "Superior Court personnel, court-provided facilities, and court-supplied office equipment" were used in the 2003 and 2009 elections.
Sasinoski, now a clerk for another justice, also told the grand jury that work was usually directed by Janine Orie, who left notes instructing the staff what to do, though "the notes were sometimes were signed by Janine as 'Judge' or 'Joan.'"
Janine Orie, 57, is scheduled for trial in August on two sets of charges related to allegedly illegal campaign work for Melvin.
Like Melvin, Janine Orie is charged with directing Melvin's Superior Court staffers to campaign in 2003 and 2009, when Orie was Melvin's chief of staff. But Orie is also charged with directing the state-funded staff of a third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, to do campaign work for Melvin, too.
Jane Orie, 50, resigned from the Senate last month and has since been sentenced to 2 1/2 to 10 years in prison for having her own state-funded legislative staff do campaign and political fundraising work for her benefit. The former senator was acquitted, however, of charges that she also ordered her staff to do campaign work for Melvin.
Janine Orie was charged along with Jane in 2010 and has been suspended since that time from her $67,000-a-year job as Melvin's Supreme Court aide.
Sasinoski, the wife of Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Kevin Sasinoski, testified at a preliminary hearing for Janine Orie that Melvin's Superior Court staff worked polls, traveled with Melvin to campaign events across the state, and wrote speeches.
"I stood in the back while she delivered the speech that I wrote," Sasinoski testified about one Melvin campaign event.
Sasinoski said she realized such work was illegal, but she didn't generally object to it.
"I really felt like there was no other choice," she said.