Trials & Litigation

Appellate panel says trial judge had right to jail prosecutor over his tactics in theft case

Saying that a Pennsylvania judge acted within the scope of his authority by ordering a prosecutor to jail for civil contempt for refusing to answer his questions, an appellate panel has denied a request by Luzerne County district attorney’s office to block the contempt ruling, require the jurist’s recusal and reverse a ruling suppressing evidence in the underlying case.

The appeal to the state superior court panel failed to provide “evidence establishing bias, prejudice, or unfairness, which raises the substantial doubt as to the jurist’s ability to preside impartially,” ruled a 3-judge superior court appellate panel on Friday concerning Judge Joseph Sklarosky Jr. of the Luzerne County Court of Common Pleas

It isn’t clear exactly how that ruling will immediately impact assistant district attorney Michael Melnick, whose conduct was at issue in the case, reports the Citizens’ Voice. His jailing has been postponed pending the appeal and it appears, based on a comment by the panel in its written opinion (PDF), that he “holds the key to the jailhouse door,” that Melnick might still be able to avoid time in the slammer simply by answering Sklarosky’s questions.

The prosecutor and the judge became embroiled in the dispute after Barry Dyller, a defense attorney for Wilkes-Barre Township Fire Chief John Yuknavich, tried to question Melnick about the prosecution’s theory of the theft case during a February 2013 pretrial hearing.

Melnick refused to give yes or no answers, leading the judge to warn him, after the first day, “you will answer the questions or bring your toothbrush because I’m going to lodge you at the Luzerne County Correctional Facility.”

The next day, Melnick sought the judge’s recusal, saying that he had learned Sklarosky had attended a dinner party at which Dyller was present, roughly a month earlier. Sklarosky said the case was not discussed there and continued the hearing. At that point, Melnick sought to assert an investigative privilege rather than answer Dyller’s questions. They concerned whether Yuknavich was accused of stealing from banks named in charging documents, the newspaper reports.

Dyller said in a subsequent court filing that “Melnick faced a difficult choice. He had to admit unethical behavior in a criminal proceeding, possibly putting this case, as well as his license to practice law, in jeopardy. His other choice was to be held in contempt of court and jailed. Melnick found a third alternative. Facing a Hobson’s choice of admitting his lies in court papers or refusing a judge’s order to answer questions, Melnick blurted out his motion to recuse.”

District Attorney Stefanie Salavantis told the newspaper on Sunday he wants to review the superior court opinion thoroughly before commenting. Melnick did not respond to a Citizens’ Voice email seeking his comment.

The theft case against Yuknavich has been on hold while the contempt ruling was being appealed.

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