When Law Clerks Know Too Much

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

Judge Joan Orie Melvin (right) is on trial for improper use of state-funded employees on state time to campaign for state Supreme Court.

Suspended Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie Melvin‘s former law clerk testified against her on Friday. Justice Orie Melvin is on trial for improperly using state-funded staff to assist her campaign bid for the state Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009 when she was a Superior Court judge. Former law clerk, Lisa Sasinoski — who by the way is married to an Allegheny County court judge — testified that, in 2003, she expressed to the judge her discomfort with the fact that state employees were doing campaign work on state time. Sasinoski said she was fired shortly after that conversation.  

Justice Orie Melvin’s sister, Jane Orie, a Republican state senator in Pennsylvania, also has been charged with improper use of state-paid staff to assist with the judge’s campaign. One of Senator Orie’s former interns, Joshua Dott, testified that he spent at least 25% of his time working on the judge’s political campaign at the senator’s direction.

This story will certainly add fuel to the national discussion about the propriety of state elections processes to select an impartial judiciary. Institutions like the Brennan Center for Justice, for instance, promote judicial independence and focus on eliminating special interest influence in the judiciary. Judicial objectivity is a necessity as judges carry out their roles as neutral arbiters for parties that must stand on equal footing before them.

What is for sure is that law clerks are an integral part of a judge’s staff and, as would-be officers of the court themselves, must uphold basic ethical and moral standards, especially as they consider future professional opportunities. 99.9% of the time, law clerks are learning by example the highest standards of conduct in the legal profession from their judges. Cases like this one are, thankfully, rare.


Allison R. Brown, Esq. is the founder and principal of Judicial Clerk Review. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and Howard University. After graduating from law school, Allison returned to her hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, and served two judicial clerkship terms – first for the Indiana Supreme Court and then for the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana. Allison has worked as an associate at the law firm of Crowell & Moring in Washington, D.C., and as a Trial Attorney for the United States Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section. Currently, she is also the President of Allison Brown Consulting (ABC), an education equity advisory group in Washington, D.C.


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