Kathleen Kane delivers a press conference in August after charges are filed against her.

Kathleen Kane delivers a press conference in August after charges are filed against her.

Screenshot via livestream

Expert: Here’s why the state Supreme Court suspended Kathleen Kane’s law license

Kathleen Kane might not have a law license in a month, but she’s still not budging from her office in Harrisburg. The embattled attorney general of Pennsylvania, facing criminal charges, has a new battle ahead. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, in an unprecedented move, will temporarily suspend her license to practice law in the state.

Kind of a setback for the “Attorney General,” whose job revolves around making legal decisions.

So what does all this mean for her day-to-day duties? Can she retain office if she’s not allowed to  practice law? Was the suspension a pretext for impeachment?

Bruce Ledewitz, an associate dean of academic affairs and professor of law at Duquesne University School of law, told Billy Penn this week that the temporary suspension of her law license — not a full revocation of that — paves the way for the state Senate to impeach her. Kane hasn’t been found guilty of any wrongdoing, and is still awaiting her day in court on charges of perjury and releasing grand jury secrets. But the Supreme Court voted unanimously to suspend her law license anyway, a move Ledewitz said was not only unusual, but unprecedented.

“I’m not sure it’s the proper use of the suspension power,” he said. “That is an emergency power for when lawyers are cheating their clients. There’s no real reason why her law license should have been suspended.”

Ledewitz said the loss of Kane’s law license could render her an ineffective enough attorney general that the Senate would have better grounds for impeachment proceedings. And that’s the only way for Kane to leave office; despite a plea from Governor Tom Wolf for her resignation, she’s not going voluntarily. The Supreme Court was careful to say that its ruling should not be construed as a mandatory “get out of office” order.

And what is clear here, Ledewitz added, is that the writers of the constitution in this state clearly didn’t prepare for an attorney general who would be charged with a crime. It only stipulates that the attorney general be a member of the bar, which Kane will remain even when her license is suspended.

“If the framers had thought about this,” he said, “they would have said ‘a member of the bar in good standing.'”

But despite calls from people in the state as high as the governor from her own party to step down, Kane has made it clear she has no plans to do so. After criminal charges were filed against her by a Montgomery County District Attorney for allegedly leaking secret grand jury information to a newspaper to get back a political foe, Kane has cried foul on everyone involved.

Her suspension officially takes place in a month on Oct. 21, but before then, she’s going down swinging. Her spokesman announced this week that she has plans to release another batch of porny emails that were sent around by members of the attorney general’s office before she got there and by other top lawyers and judges in the state.

She’s released the porny emails before — missives created or forwarded by dozens of officials who worked under former attorney general (and then governor) Tom Corbett. Some of the most controversial were sent and received by Frank Fina and E. Marc Costanzo, two former Jerry Sandusky prosecutors who left the AG’s office and went to work in Philly for District Attorney Seth Williams. They weren’t removed from their positions based on the sending and receiving of the emails.

According to Kane’s office, there are apparently more that were sent to members of State Police and other officials from both Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties that she plans to release before her suspension begins. It’s unclear at what point she’s going to let the porn free.

How her office will operate once the suspension takes place is up in the air.

Attorneys general very rarely prosecute cases themselves. That’s what assistant attorneys general are for. The attorney general is in many ways an office figurehead that makes big decisions, signs a lot of legal papers and gives a lot of direction. But Ledewitz said that the way the constitution is written, is that any prosecutor from her office that appears in court is technically a proxy for her. Her name is often on pleadings, because all pleadings come from her.

So technically, the constitution *could* be interpreted in a way that if Kane can’t practice law, no one in the office can practice law. Now, Ledewitz cautioned that it’s highly unlikely the state constitution would ever be interpreted like that, saying “the courts will not press this matter to its logical conclusion.” 

What it does mean is that if she has no law license, she’s reduced to simply a figurehead. She can still hire and fire and hold press conferences and do her political thing, but she can’t make legal decisions, she can’t appear in court and she can’t sign legal documentation, rendering her position as the top lawyer in the state effectively useless.

So can Kane appeal this decision and stay in office until it’s settled?

When you’re dealing with the top court in the state, there’s nowhere else to really go. Technically, Kane can’t appeal the decision the high court made that strips away her law license because they’re just that — the high court. What they say goes. Ledewitz said Kane can technically ask the court for reconsideration, but it’s unlikely they would grant that, especially as they came through with five justices unanimous on the issue.

“The thing is,” Ledewitz said, “we just don’t know if she’s even guilty at this point.”

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