Judges are not above the law
Checks and balances that are the foundation of American governance are in the U.S. Constitution and every state constitution. The three branches of government are separate but equal, and the judicial branch is supposed to be apolitical and free of interference from the political branches.
That doesn't mean that judges are above the law, which is the dangerous implication made in a motion to dismiss charges against suspended Supreme Court Justice Joan Orie-Melvin.
She and her sister/chief of staff, Janine Orie, are charged in Allegheny County with using Justice Orie-Melvin's publicly funded Superior Court office resources, including her staff, for political purposes while running for the Supreme Court in 2003 and 2009. The justice is charged with theft of services, conspiracy, solicitation to tamper or fabricate evidence and official oppression.
A third sister, former state Sen. Jane Orie, is in state prison due to her conviction on similar charges regarding use of her staff. She was acquitted of charges that she used those resources in behalf of her sister's judicial campaigns.
Justice Orie-Melvin's lawyer, Patrick Casey of Scranton, has filed a motion contending that the prosecution violates the constitutionally mandated separation of powers. If the case proceeds, the motion contended, "the independence of the judiciary will erode and yield to the executive's self-declared authority to police and prosecute the manner and means by which judges direct their staff and exercise their judicial authority."
The judiciary has been zealous in defending its independence, sometimes too much so. The Supreme Court erred several years ago, for example, when it overturned the state lobbying law, claiming that only the court could regulate the conduct of lawyers who worked as lobbyists.
There must be some limit. What if a judge is charged with theft or some other crime?
Political conduct, by the judiciary's own rules, is a proscribed activity for judges (even though, in Pennsylvania, they must campaign for office, sporadically making them politicians.) But the conduct charged to Justice Orie-Melvin is not simply an ethical matter for the court.
The ethical proscription does not "give judges a pass to insulate themselves from prosecution when their political activity crosses the line into criminal conduct," the prosecution replied to the Orie-Melvin motion.
Allegheny County Assistant District Attorney Lawrence Claus argued that the case should "proceed pursuant to the same principles as prosecution of any ordinary citizen."
That's the appropriate standard.