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Judging right of free speech

Saturday, September 04, 1999

By Dennis Roddy

A little over eight months ago, a faceless county employee who writes a page on the World Wide Web called "Grant Street 99" got in the face of Joan Orie Melvin, a judge on the Superior Court of Pennsylvania.

He said Melvin had lobbied the Ridge administration on behalf of a Pittsburgh lawyer who wanted an appointment to Common Pleas Court. Grant Street 99 called it "misconduct." I'm not sure I agree. Melvin denies everything.

Welcome to court.

For the last eight months, Melvin has tried to pry the identity of the anonymous author from America Online, the Internet service that originally hosted Grant Street 99. One AOL lawyer says the judge's brother, Jack Orie, said legal proceedings would be dropped once they nailed down Grant Street 99's identity. Jack Orie, for the record, denies this.

Grant Street 99 has made a lot of enemies with his anonymous shots. Some of it seems fair. Some not. That's how these things work. We are not talking about a man of prominence or influence here. He is a nobody who spouted off about things he thought were wrong in a place where speaking out publicly can cost a man his job.

The one thing that remains very clear is that, once his identity is known, his career in Allegheny County is finished.

Jack Orie, an otherwise likeable man well regarded in legal circles, told me he was determined to get the guy who took a swipe at his sister, and I suppose that's a reasonable reaction from any brother, except that the sister in question already has the extraordinary powers of high office and public regard at her disposal. A badmouth from Grant Street 99 could have been shrugged off for the anonymous gossip it is.

Virginia courts already have told the judge that she has no standing to sue there. So, after filing a notice that she will sue in Allegheny County, Melvin has, again, tried to get at the identity of Grant Street 99. Her lawyers went to an Allegheny County judge, filed a request for a subpoena, and, before Grant Street 99's lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union could be told, the order was down in Loudon County, Va. By sheer luck, Grant Street 99's lawyers got word and yesterday got Judge R. Stanton Wettick to lift the order pending the filing of a proper defamation suit.

This whole thing promises to go back and forth for some time. Judge Melvin believes that in some way she must defend her honor. It is no secret that she would like to move along to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. It is an important position and one of the most important qualities needed for it is a lack of self-importance. Getting bad things said about you is a common feature in public life. The trained seals at my favorite out-of-town newspaper have used terms such as "dishonest" and "shanty town Irish Catholics" when referring to me. Rather than sue, I shrugged it off, because you can't have a discussion about public matters without someone occasionally causing offense.

It will, in the end, be for courts to decide if Judge Melvin has a case or not. Certainly, it will look even worse if she drops the matter after flushing out the identity of the low-level apparatchik who has riled her. But free speech, and leadership for that matter, are usually less dependent on legal niceties than on the decisions, one-by-one, of individuals with the power to get even, to instead overlook offensive criticism because they cherish the larger ideal in which it resides.

That, by the way, is what I would look for in a state Supreme Court justice.

Judge Melvin, let the matter drop. You are starting to look like a bully.



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