Friday, February 1, 2013

The Cautionary Instruction: Justices on the wrong side of the law

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/Ipso Facto
February 1, 2013

Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin, who is charged with theft of services, conspiracy and tampering with evidence stemming from campaigns she ran for the high court in 2003 and 2009, is on trial here in Allegheny County.

A Supreme Court justice on trial in Pittsburgh is not a novel event. Less than twenty years ago, Justice Rolf Larsen was convicted in Pittsburgh of conspiring to obtain anti-anxiety drugs through prescriptions written in the names of court employees, and he was removed from office at his sentencing.

That wasn’t the end of the story for Larsen. A couple of months later the state senate convicted Larsen on one impeachment charge. He was permanently removed from the state Supreme Court, and barred from ever holding public office in Pennsylvania.

Criminal trials for state Supreme Court justices are not unique to Pennsylvania. In 2005, Ohio Supreme Court Justice Alice Robie Resnick was arrested for driving under the influence. Justice Resnick registered a blood alcohol concentration of 0.22, nearly three times the legal limit in Ohio. A police cruiser dashboard camera recorded the incident, and much of the audio, showing Justice Resnick trying to use her office to get out of the charge. She was convicted of DUI, required to take a three-day alcohol education program, and her license was suspended for six months.

In 2009, New York State Supreme Court Justice Thomas J. Spargo was convicted by a federal jury in Albany, N.Y., of attempted extortion and soliciting a bribe.

Spargo was convicted following a three-day jury trial. Evidenced introduced at trial showed that in 2003, Spargo solicited a $10,000 payment from an attorney with cases pending before him while serving as a state Supreme Court justice.

A Supreme Court justice running amok of the law is not just a modern phenomenon. More than 120 years ago a former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court, David S. Terry, tracked down a former foe on the court who had been elevated to the U.S. Supreme Court, Stephen Johnson Field. Terry attempted to kill Field in 1889 on a train traveling through California but was instead killed by Field's bodyguard, a U.S. Marshal.

It is also worth noting that being a disgraced former state Supreme Court justice is not necessarily the end of the road.

In 2003, a panel of Alabama Supreme Court justices removed Chief Justice Roy Moore from office due to his repeated refusal to comply with a federal court order requiring him to remove a giant Ten Commandments monument that he installed in the state’s judicial building.

Last fall, Moore was re-elected chief justice in a triumphant political resurrection. Moore, a Republican, defeated a County Circuit Judge to win back his former office.

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