She was the first woman, and first Republican, to serve as Chief Magistrate Judge on Pittsburgh’s Municipal Court.
She was the first female Republican elected to the Allegheny County Common Pleas bench — the only Republican out of 43 judges. And, in 1997, she became the first female Republican elected to the state Superior Court, which is the busiest appellate court in the nation.
Now, Judge Joan Orie Melvin, married for 25 years and mother of six, is looking for one more accomplishment in her career — becoming a state Supreme Court Justice. She is the endorsed Republican candidate in the May 19 primary election.
As a judge with 23 years of experience, Judge Orie Melvin is unabashed in her judicial philosophy, which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s judicial evaluation commission describes as strict constructionist.
"Having participated in over 8,000 appeals, I have a record with regard to my judicial philosophy. I am a strict constructionist," she said. "I believe in judicial restraint. The job of a judge is interpreting the law — not creating it. And never legislating from the bench. That’s why we have three separate, co-equal branches of government. Judges are not supposed to be legislators."
The even 3-3 split between Republicans and Democrats on the state Supreme Court means whoever wins in November could cast a number of deciding votes.
Judge Orie Melvin said her election would translate into conservative Republican values that would benefit all Pennsylvanians.
"I am a social and fiscal conservative and a reformer," she said. "The opinions of the Supreme Court are of great public importance because they affect the lives of every Pennsylvania citizen. [Because this seat will control the majority], there will be a difference whether a Republican or Democrat justice gets elected."
She cited endorsements from the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation and the National Rifle Association that go back 23 years, as well as the backing of Pennsylvanians for Effective Government and the state Chamber of Commerce, as evidence of her conservative philosophy.
Judge Orie Melvin gave examples of how a Republican-controlled court differs from a Democratic one.
"In the 1990s, attempts at tort reform were made by the legislature, especially in the medical malpractice area, with the [excessive] verdicts in Philadelphia," Judge Orie Melvin said. "The Supreme Court, which was Democratic at the time, declared such laws unconstitutional."
When the court changed sides in 2001, she said, rules were amended that helped mitigate the medical malpractice crisis. These included the elimination of venue shopping and a requirement that cases had to be certified up front that they were not frivolous in nature.
"After those rules were enacted, a study one year later showed that malpractice cases in Philadelphia decreased by 50 percent and by 35 percent in Allegheny County," Judge Orie Melvin said. "The Pennsylvania Supreme Court had an impact on the economic climate in the state."
Judge Orie Melvin, a veteran of statewide campaigns, recognizes her obstacles given the Democrats’ 1.2-million statewide voter edge.
However, she remains undeterred, recalling her win in 1991 as a Allegheny County Common Pleas judge despite facing a three-and-a-half to one disadvantage in voter registration.
"People will cross over and they will vote based on your values and what you represent. Although things were negative in November [for Republicans], things are changing," Judge Orie Melvin said. "There is an energy. People are hungry because they are not satisfied with the ‘change’ that they got. This will be a positive year for Republicans."
Judge Orie Melvin cited state Attorney General Tom Corbett’s 400,000-vote win last November as proof that Republican candidates can still win statewide.
"Tom Corbett was all about ‘reform.’ He represented fighting corruption, and people were well aware of his record on reform, so people were picking and choosing what they wanted on election day," she said. "I feel the same way in that I have proof of reform as a judge. That’s what people want."
Pennsylvania’s recent history of judicial abuses of power and corruption, in her opinion, means voters are looking for someone who can bring a sense of integrity.
"We need to restore people’s confidence in the courts," she said. "We do that by having openness, transparency and accountability. That’s the reform we need."
She, like her sister Jane Orie, the state Senate Majority Whip, says she stands for more open and responsive government. Judge Orie Melvin attributes the values she and her sister share to the way they were raised.
"We were brought up to be women of conviction who fight for what is right. Look at the payraise," she said. "I opposed it in 2005, and I pay it back every month to the Treasury — not to a charity — but to the Treasury, to the taxpayers, where it belongs."
Judge Orie Melvin said, as a steward of taxpayer dollars, she feels an obligation to be accountable with the people’s money. She maintains the lowest judicial expenses, refuses to participate in out-of-state judicial conferences, returns cost-of-living adjustment increases and doesn’t lease a state car.
"I grew up in the North Hills section of Pittsburgh, one of nine children. I was always taught that we should live by the principles of God and country," she said. "My mother was a devout woman who instilled the value of volunteering in her children, and my father was a doctor who practiced for 50 years and still made house calls when he retired 10 years ago. He made sure everybody always had access to health care — even if they couldn’t pay him. That’s where the work ethic comes from!"
Judge Orie Melvin’s campaign emphasizes giving back to the community, helping those less fortunate and reforming government.
"Being honest in what you do and following your convictions," is not just how Judge Orie Melvin says she was raised, but what guides her in her quest for the Supreme Court.
Chris Freind can be reached at [email protected]