Avenue to suspend Pennsylvania attorney general's law license could spark legal fight



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HARRISBURG, Pennsylvania — With Attorney General Kathleen Kane battling criminal charges and increasingly isolated from Pennsylvania's legal and law enforcement communities, many eyes have turned to whether the state's highest court will invoke a rarely-used sanction to quickly suspend her law license.

Everyone has an opinion as to whether it will, and even if it does, whether it will force her from office.

It is uncharted territory.

The state Constitution requires an attorney general to be a member of the bar. If her license is suspended, it could lead to a legal battle over her status as the state's top law enforcement officer.

"If she's suspended, she's not removed," said Jim Koval, a spokesman for the Administrative Office for the Pennsylvania Courts. "The Supreme Court doesn't have the authority to remove her from office. She still holds the title."

Kane, the first Democrat and first woman elected to be attorney general of Pennsylvania, was charged Aug. 6 by Montgomery County authorities with leaking information protected by secrecy laws to a Philadelphia newspaper and lying about it under oath. She is also accused of deploying aides to spy on the investigation into her office.

Kane, 49, has said she did nothing wrong.

Courts officials try to keep the existence of disciplinary cases confidential. On Friday, Koval would not say whether the process to move for an emergency suspension of her law license was underway.

Kane's aides and lawyers also would not discuss it.

"I can't talk to you about it because anything I say can be held against me," Kane told The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday.

It is not clear whether a suspended law license would mean Kane would no longer be a member of the bar. Muddying the picture, the constitution grants the Legislature power to impeach an executive branch official, rather than the courts, lawyers say.

"You've got constitutional provisions at conflict," said Samuel Stretton, a West Chester lawyer and former chief counsel for the Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.

If Kane's law license is suspended, she potentially could still exert influence over the office, even without the ability to act as a lawyer. For instance, she might be able hire and fire, and retain the perk of traveling with a security detail.

Still, Kane would be unable to make legal decisions or establish policy on how the attorney general's office acts in court, said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor.

"You can't enforce the law if you're not a lawyer," Ledewitz said.

That could be interpreted as Kane no longer being competent to be attorney general, Ledewitz said. That, in turn, could precipitate the legislative process to remove her, or a separate process called "direct address."

That provision, added to the state constitution in the 1960s, has never been used, Senate lawyers said. Under that process, the governor and a two-thirds majority of the Senate can remove a civil elected officer "after due notice and full hearing."

It is not a stretch to envision that: Kane is also isolated politically. Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, has called for Kane to resign because of the criminal charges she is facing and the Senate has a huge Republican majority that would require just a few Democrats joining it to reach a two-thirds watermark.

Any other process to remove Kane — whether impeachment, disbarment or criminal conviction — could easily take more than a year.

If she is barred from making legal decisions, the task would be left to her first assistant, lawyers and court officials say.

Currently, Kane's first assistant deputy attorney general is Bruce Beemer, one of the witnesses who testified in the investigation that resulted in charges against Kane. Beemer's testimony did not help Kane and tended to support the prosecution's case.

At one point, Beemer testified that he requested permission from Kane to look into the leak.

According to Beemer, Kane responded, "don't worry about it. It's not a big deal. We have more important things to do."


Marc Levy covers politics and government for The Associated Press in Pennsylvania. He can be reached at mlevy@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/timelywriter .

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