The state's highest court on Monday ordered the temporary suspension of Attorney General Kathleen Kane's law license, a step that could trigger a Senate vote to remove her as she faces criminal charges.
The unanimous order by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court's five justices also could prompt a legal challenge from the first-term Democrat, who is also the first woman to hold the position of Pennsylvania's top prosecutor. In the meantime, it creates an issue 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.
In the order, the court said its action should not be construed as removing her from office. Kane's office said it was reviewing the decision and had no immediate comment. Her private lawyers made no immediate statement.
The order comes barely a month after Montgomery County authorities arrested Kane on charges she leaked secret investigative information to a newspaper reporter and then lied about it under oath. She was charged with perjury, obstruction and other counts.
Her lawyers have argued that suspending her license while she is contesting the allegations would circumvent explicit constitutional provisions for removing her from office and violate her right to due process of law.
Kane has maintained she did nothing wrong.
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 its Aug. 25 petition to the high court justices, the agency that investigates misconduct by Pennsylvania lawyers argued that Kane and one of her former defense attorneys admitted that she had authorized the release of information related to a 2009 grand jury investigation.
That allegation is also central to the criminal case against her.
However, Kane's current lawyers say she did not disclose grand jury material or information kept secret under state criminal records laws. Instead, they have argued, she only authorized the release of information "relating to a pattern of unjustifiable selective prosecution or nonprosecution" under her predecessors.
Previous statements by her attorneys that she authorized the transcript's release were incorrect, her lawyers now contend.
Following the filing of charges Aug. 6, Gov. Tom Wolf, a fellow Democrat, called on Kane to resign. Kane, whose term is up in 2017, has refused.