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Pennsylvania Attorney General Suspended from the Bar, Still Refuses to Quit

Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane was suspended from the bar on October 22 for apparent violations of the law by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A newspaper chain’s website says this makes her “the first attorney general without a license to practice law.”

As it notes, “The first-term Democrat's license was put on indefinite, temporary suspension by the state Supreme Court on Sept. 21, weeks after she was charged with perjury and other crimes for allegedly leaking secret grand jury material to a reporter and lying about it. The court delayed the suspension for 30 days, so her first full day without a license” was October 22.

As we described in “The Nation’s Worst State Attorneys General,” Kane has frequently shown contempt for the law and her ethical obligations while in office. (We rated her the nation’s worst attorney general.)

But still, she is refusing to step down, even though the lack of a law license legally keeps her from performing many of her duties, and most of the state’s major newspapers have called for her resignation: “Embattled Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane told senior staffers Wednesday that she still intends to run the office, even with a law license that has been placed on an emergency suspension. Kane, in a staff meeting, said that in her view about 98 percent of her work can go on as before,” with only two percent being farmed out to state Justice Department lawyers. After years of depicting herself as the state’s chief lawyer, she now implies that her role is largely bureaucratic.

Given how political and partisan Kane has been in office (like dropping an investigation into corrupt Philadelphia lawmakers caught red-handed accepting bribes—an act which would have let them off scot-free had an outraged local prosecutor not indicted and convicted four of them), I can see why she is trying depict her role as primarily non-legal. But her politicizing legal matters doesn’t make them non-legal, and she plainly intends to continue meddling in legal matters.

Kane’s spokesman says that avoiding legal tasks will only keep Kane from making “appearances in court” or filing legal documents, and her duties will likely continue to “include advising subordinates on whether or not to file criminal charges.” It sounds like she will engage in the unauthorized practice of law, since many other activities than filing documents or making court appearances typically require a license to practice law.

Moreover, advising subordinates on whether to file criminal charges after losing her right to practice law is very suspect. Under Pennsylvania ethics rules, non-lawyers are not supposed to tell lawyers how to practice law. For example, under Rule 5.4(d)(3), a “nonlawyer” is not supposed to have “the right to direct or control the professional judgment of a lawyer.” Whether or not such rules make sense when applied to private citizens, they should be followed by the state’s own attorney general, who has a special duty to comply with state law.

Perhaps Kane’s impending disbarment is a sign of the times. Given how contemptuous of the rule of law and ethics Kane and several other attorneys general have been in recent years, it is only fitting that they not be allowed to practice law, and be deprived of the cloak of respectability conferred by a bar license.

If Kane is convicted for her shenanigans in office, she won’t be the first attorney general found guilty for crimes committed in office. Texas attorney general Dan Morales was sentenced to four years in prison for mail fraud and tax evasion related to Texas’s 1998 tobacco settlement. Alabama’s Richmond Flowers was sentenced to eight years for conspiring to extort payments from companies. Missouri’s William Webster got two years for rewarding lawyers who donated to his campaign with bigger settlements.

Kane deeply politicized the state attorney general's office. Ignoring one of her most basic job responsibilities, Kane declined to defend state laws that were challenged in court by her political allies (such as gun-rights laws), even though she had a duty under state law to defend them. She also awarded lucrative no-bid contracts to campaign contributors, and concealed them from the public in violation of state’s Right to Know Law.

Kane is not the only current state attorney general with a history of violating the law. Another example is Mississippi’s Jim Hood, whom we rated the nation’s second worst attorney general.

Hood has hired political supporters to handle state lawsuits, giving them big paydays at taxpayer expense. The Mississippi Supreme Court twice ruled that he violated the law by letting trial lawyers collect fees that belonged to the state treasury (i.e., the taxpayers). Some lawyers hired by Hood, such as Dickie Scruggs, later wound up in prison after being convicted of bribery. Scruggs pled guilty in 2009 to bribing two judges, and was sentenced to seven years. Hood refused to investigate Scruggs and his associates, saying it would be “like prosecuting relatives.”

Our report on the worst attorneys general also chronicles the mischief of four other attorneys general. The third worst attorney general is Iowa's Tom Miller, who used a tobacco settlement to give billions of dollars to rich trial lawyers at the expense of the very people who were allegedly victimized, and a mortgage settlement to rip off innocent mortgage investors who had already suffered in the financial crisis. Other attorneys general ignored government corruption; violated campaign finance laws; used lawsuit settlements as slush funds; and turned a blind eye to prosecutorial misconduct.