The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has suspended the law license of embattled state Attorney General Kathleen Kane, but the move apparently won’t drive her from office.
Kane has been ordered to stand trial on conspiracy, perjury and other charges stemming from her alleged leak of secret investigative material to embarrass an adversary.
The court’s disciplinary board, which oversees the conduct of lawyers in the state, asked the justices to suspend her license, saying she can’t oversee enforcement of laws that she’s accused of breaking.
Since the state Constitution requires that the attorney general be a member of the bar, it was anticipated that the loss of her law license might force Kane from office.
But in suspending her license, the Supreme Court said its order should not be construed as removing her from office.
Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz told me lawyers with suspended licenses can’t practice, but they’re still members of the bar. Kane, he said, falls in a kind of constitutional loophole.
“All she has to be a member of the bar, which she still is. That’s all the Constitution says,” Ledewitz said. “If the framers had thought about the possibility of suspension, they undoubtedly would have said that she has to be a member of the bar in good standing.”
So, the Supreme Court recognized that even with a suspended license, Kane meets the constitutional requirement to hold office. But, Ledewitz said, there’s a big problem. She really can’t legally perform the duties of her office without an effective law license.
“Technically speaking, every assistant attorney general who’s in court is standing in for the attorney general. In effect, it’s always the attorney general herself who’s in court on our behalf,” he said. “That’s why she has to be a member of the bar. The courts could say, tomorrow, ‘The attorney general’s office no longer has authority to be here.'”
Ledewitz said he thinks the courts will ignore that for now. But he said the Supreme Court’s suspension could spell a whole new kind of trouble for Kane.
Justices on the Supreme Court were aware the suspension would leave Kane technically qualified for office, but not able to function effectively, he said. And that might trigger action by the state Senate.
“I think they were assuming that the Senate might very well take this opportunity that they’ve been given to remove her, not on the grounds that she’s guilty of a crime, but that she doesn’t have an effective law license,” Ledewitz said.
The Republican-controlled Senate can remove Kane, a Democrat, with a two-thirds vote.
Ledewitz, by the way, doesn’t think Kane deserved the suspension, since she’s been accused, but not convicted of a crime. Lawyers in such circumstances don’t typically have their licenses suspended, he said.
The Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the investigative arm of the disciplinary board, wrote in its filing that “it is a concurrent conflict of interest for [Kane] to continue practicing law while being prosecuted for violating the very laws she was vested with the power to enforce.”
The filing cited an unrelated case in which a defense attorney attacked the credibility of an investigator from the attorney general’s office, by noting that he worked for Kane.
Kane said she’s disappointed with the suspension, but she’s pleased the court recognized her office can carry on its important work, “work which will root out the culture of misogyny and racially and religiously offensive behavior which has permeated law enforcement and members of the judiciary in this commonwealth for years.”
Kane has long said she’s innocent of the charges against her, that she is the victim of retribution from men angry at her for exposing pornographic emails exchanged in the attorney general’s office.
Kane’s attorneys, James Mundy and James Powell, said in a statement that “there is another side to this story that the public has never heard. When General Kane is given the opportunity to be heard, the other side of the story will come out … we are confident that once that happens, General Kane will be exonerated.”