Judge rejects argument that AG Kane’s status affects criminal cases
January 11, 2016 11:11 PM
Matt Rourke/Associated Press
Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane
By Chris Potter / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In what may set a precedent for future cases involving questions over Attorney General Kathleen Kane’s murky legal status, an Armstrong County judge has rejected two defense lawyers’ arguments that the suspension of her law license precludes her office from trying criminal cases.
The attorneys, Chuck Pascal and Gregory Swank, argued last month that her office’s prosecutions of their three clients — all accused of charges related to child pornography — should be set aside because Ms. Kane’s law license was suspended last fall. That, the attorneys argued, precluded her from making any legal decision on cases, including delegating such legal decision-making to others.
But Armstrong County Common Pleas President Judge Kenneth Valasek rejected that argument in an opinion Friday. He called it “nonsensical” to think that Ms. Kane’s suspension creates a “doomsday scenario ... that effectively incapacitates the entire office from doing anything in any pending criminal case.”
Of potentially broader interest, Judge Valasek also wrote that “there is nothing in the [law] that indicates ... the temporary suspension of Ms. Kane’s law license completely bars her from exercising the statutorily-granted powers of the Attorney General.”
While state law requires the Attorney General to be a “member of the bar of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania,” he said, it “does not contain any requirement that the Attorney General possess an active license. ... [B]ar membership and licensure are not the same thing.”
Echoing arguments raised by the attorney general’s office, he noted that a disbarred attorney “has no basis [to think] he or she will once again practice law,” while a suspended lawyer can return to practice immediately once a suspension is lifted.
In a statement, the Attorney General’s office said, “We believe the opinion affirms our position that the Attorney General’s office is on solid legal footing in these matters.”
Mr. Pascal said the ruling was “not unexpected” and he is pondering whether to appeal: “I don't know what the next legal move is.”
Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University law professor, said the ruling might have little impact on Senate deliberations over whether to remove Ms. Kane, which are slated to begin today. Judge Valasek’s ruling demonstrated that “They don’t have to remove her: Someone is doing the job. But it’s not the attorney general. She can’t do all the things an attorney general should do,” he said.
Mr. Ledewitz added that even if Judge Valasik’s decision wasn’t appealed, similar challenges could emerge elsewhere. A lawyer “can still challenge the activity of Kathleen Kane in a specific case. They are going to want an answer to that” — and finding out in each case could bog down the justice system, he said.
Mr. Ledewitz blamed the state Supreme Court for creating such pitfalls. “They brought this upon us,” he said. “Lawyers don't generally lose their license when they face charges. You go to trial and if you’re convicted, then you lose your license. The court had no role here.”
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