HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania's highest court on Monday ordered the temporary suspension of state Attorney General Kathleen Kane's law license, a step that could trigger efforts to remove her from office as she fights perjury, obstruction and other charges.
The unanimous order by the state Supreme Court's five justices also could prompt a legal challenge from the first-term Democrat.
The one-page decision by the justices — three Republicans and two Democrats — dealt with a petition by state ethics enforcement lawyers who accused Kane of admitting that she had authorized the release of information that allegedly should have been kept secret. That allegation is also central to the criminal case against her.
In the meantime, it creates the unprecedented situation of leaving the state's top law enforcement official in charge of a 750-employee office and a $93 million budget but without the ability to act as a lawyer.
The state constitution requires the attorney general to be a licensed lawyer. But the court said in the order that its action should not be construed as removing her from office, raising the thorny question of how her office will decide which duties she can or cannot do.
Kane and her lawyers did not say Monday whether she would appeal or challenge the order, which was issued through an emergency process usually reserved for lawyers who are brazenly stealing from clients or behaving erratically in court.
In statements issued through her office, Kane, 49, said she was disappointed in the court's action and would not resign. She maintained her innocence and vowed to continue to fight to clear her name.
Then, Kane called attention to a pornographic email scandal uncovered by her office that involved numerous current and former officials there and claimed the job last year of a state Supreme Court justice.
Kane said she would continue to root out "the culture of misogyny and racially/religiously offensive behavior that has permeated law enforcement and members of the judiciary in this Commonwealth for years."
The order comes barely a month after Montgomery County authorities arrested Kane on Aug. 6 on charges she leaked secret investigative information to a newspaper reporter and then lied about it under oath. She had been motivated to publicly embarrass two former state prosecutors who had been publicly critical of her, prosecutors said.
The charges prompted Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, to call for her resignation.
Losing her license, if only temporarily, is the latest black eye for Kane. Before she was charged, Kane's office saw an exodus of top aides, fumbled corruption cases and feuds with former prosecutors who served under her Republican predecessors.
Kane, the first woman and Democrat elected to the position of Pennsylvania's top prosecutor, has dismissed the probe against her as a backlash over her challenge to what she calls the old-boys' network in law enforcement.
Her lawyers have argued that suspending her license while she is contesting the allegations circumvents explicit constitutional provisions for removing her from office and violates her right to due process of law.
In the Senate, the potential for the court's action has prompted Senate lawyers to research a never-used constitutional provision that allows a two-thirds vote of senators to remove certain elected officials.
In a statement, her private lawyers predicted that she would be exonerated once her side of the story is told.
She has never been permitted to present evidence or confront a witness against her, and "most importantly, no fact finder has ever found that she did anything wrong," said her lawyers, James Mundy and James Powell.
A spokesman for the attorney general's office said Kane will continue setting the office's priorities and making administrative decisions. But her name will likely disappear from all filings the office's lawyers make in court, former prosecutors say.
University of Pittsburgh law professor John Burkoff said the tricky question will be whether she can make decisions on cases, give input or authorize actions in court.
"It's a strange new world," Burkoff said. "We don't have great answers for this because we've never had to consider this before."
The first deputy attorney general, Bruce Beemer, a career prosecutor from Pittsburgh who joined the office in 2011, will likely assume duties she can no longer perform, an office spokesman said.