This Monday the Pennsylvania senate’s “Special Committee on Senate Address” held a hearing of questionable legality on whether to remove state Attorney General Kathleen Kane from office without formal impeachment proceedings.
The section of the constitution the senate is hoping to invoke is based on an obscure clause dating back to 1873 meant to quickly remove mentally incapacitated, low-level state officials from office.
But these constitutional issues are the least of the senate committee’s problems.
Basic everyday issues of fairness, and fact, were on full display at the senate hearing.
Monday’s hearing before the Senate committee included three district attorneys from smaller counties around the state.
Witnesses included David Heckler, DA of Bucks County, John Adams, of Berks, and Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser, of Somerset. The three had been referred to the committee by the state district attorney’s association.
DA panel (l to r) John Adams, David Heckler, and Lisa Lazzari-Strasiser: witnesses said they had, at bottom, no real problem with AG Kane’s office. In top photo, Sen. John Gordner holds court with the media.
Senator John Gordner (R-Columbia County), chairman of the committee, began the hearing by telling the witnesses, “Obviously you on a weekly basis have relations with the attorney general’s office in regard to prosecutions ... and (we) would like to hear from you in regard to the relationship of that as it currently exists.”
The witnesses responded, one by one, that they, at bottom, have had no problems with Kane’s attorney generals office.
DA Heckler, of Bucks, said that although the “issue had been raised” in some quarters that there could possibly be some “difficulties” with cases referred by local DAs to the state AG’s office, “Frankly, I have not experienced that situation, and I’ve been in office before the existing administration and obviously since.”
DA Adams, of Berks, said, “We have not had any issues. The cases that our office has referred to the office of attorney general have been accepted. I don’t think they’ve ever declined. ... Our referrals that we’ve requested have been approved.”
DA Strasiser, of Somerset, said she had no great problems with Kane’s office either.
With that there was a pregnant, embarrassing pause in the senate hearing room.
Having heard this, you’d imagine, we could all go home, and AG Kane could be left to defend herself before a jury of her peers at a fair trial in a court of law, and the senators could get about the business of, well, passing a state budget, which now is five months overdue.
But what would be the fun of that?
Why work on the budget when you can kick Kathleen Kane around, and perhaps divert everyone’s attention from the senate’s own dysfunction?
To fill in the remaining hour or so allotted for the hearing, Kane’s opponents on the committee, led by Chairman Gordner, resorted to arguing hypotheticals, and nonsensical ones at that.
“Sentence first! Verdict afterwards!” the Queen of Hearts demands in Alice in Wonderland. The Queen of Hearts would appreciate the state senate’s “Special Committee on Senate Address.”
This after all wasn’t a proper court of law, governed by rules of evidence and procedure. It was a kangaroo court, meant to unfairly damage AG Kane.
As such, the hearing quickly became offensive.
And deeply offensive at that.
With no rules of evidence, procedure or court to bind them, Sen. Gordner and his Republican colleagues proceeded to lead the witnesses to say the things they wanted to hear them to say, and to introduce hearsay, innuendo and supposition.
The real purpose of this hearing, of course, was to steer the panel of witnesses to areas of conversation that created the headlines and sound bites that the senators wanted the willing media -- which had turned out by the dozens -- to repeat.
But with most of these dullards in the state media, you have to keep things simple. Very simple.
If the DAs present had lost their law licenses, could they still run their offices? the Republican senators hypothetically asked.
“I would be on permanent vacation if I didn’t have a law license,” Berks DA Adams hypothesized. He testified he’d spend a lot more time playing golf, and that his golf game would improve.
A ‘permanent vacation’ is something these idiots in the capitol newsroom understand all too well
Now we’re talking! A “permanent vacation” is something the idiots in the capitol newsroom understand all too well.
So this naturally became one of the main lines in the news story published by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, which also wrote about the DA’s golf game.
“DAs tell PA senate panel looking into AG Kane they need law license for most duties,” screamed an incorrect headline from Associate Press reporter, Marc Levy. (In fact, the DAs said pretty much the opposite.)
These reporters and GOP senators have an ax to grind, but they need lots of help from each other to grind it.
The district attorneys on the panel said their legal experience was important in running their offices. But that legal experience, presumably, wouldn’t simply disappear if their law license suddenly vanished.
This line of inquiry dragged on for about an hour.
GOP Sen. Gene Yaw makes point at hearing
Without any real complaints, the witnesses were encouraged to talk about the unknown ramifications of a state attorney general who has been stripped of her law license.
Left unmentioned at the hearing, of course, was that Kane’s law license had been yanked without a hearing by a compromised state supreme court, which was caught passing around pornography by AG Kane, which was also conveniently not mentioned.
It was made abundantly clear by word and deed of the GOP senators that they want desperately to limit the testimony and conversation of their committee to the extremely narrow topic of Kane’s law license, and not whether her license was properly suspended, and certainly without mention of the thousands of porno emails she discovered.
Also left unmentioned was the pertinent fact that the attorneys general in 23 other states, the U.S. attorney general, and even U.S. supreme court justices aren’t required to hold a state bar law license, and those offices don’t seem to suffer.
FBI agents aren’t marching in the streets of Washington to complain that the Justice Department is in shambles because the U.S. attorney general doesn’t have a state bar license.
But Pennsylvania is parochial and an island to itself, and as always remains unaware, nor too much concerned, about the real world beyond its borders.
So don’t expect, for example, the senate panel to shell out big bucks for bus fare to have the attorney general of Maryland, for example, ride up Interstate 83 from Annapolis to explain how that office is run when its AG holds no license from its state courts.
‘A more fruitful line of inquiry might be whether a law license controlled by the courts prevents a state attorney general from investigating the courts’
A more fruitful line of inquiry for the senate panel to investigate might be whether a law license controlled by the state courts prevents Pennsylvania’s attorney general from investigating crimes or misbehavior on those same courts.
Nor was it mentioned that these imaginary problems, let’s be honest, were created by the state supreme court when it yanked Kane’s license before she’d been given an opportunity to defend herself in a real court of law, with appealable rules of evidence and procedure.
The court system itself had damaged Kane, and now this kangaroo senate court composed of friends of the judges set about the business of blaming Kane for any potential problems that might have resulted from their own political skullduggery.
Things as such grew ever more ridiculous at the hearing.
Senate panel: What if we ran over AG Kane with a steam shovel? Wouldn’t you say that would create problems in her office?
The questioning took on the fodder for a Saturday Night Live skit, which would go something like this:
Senator Grigsby: “If we were to pull Attorney General Kane’s legs off, set her hair on fire, or run over her with a steam shovel, wouldn’t you say that creates problems with the way things are run in her office?”
You get the idea. That’s how bad this hearing was.
About an hour into this travesty of law, politics and history, the hypothetical question was asked by DA Heckler, “Heaven forbid, if something happens to the attorney general, a car accident or something, there are legal provisions for her successors to go ahead do the business of the office. The problem that folks are wrestling with is what happens when she doesn’t have a law license when she’s still very much alive there? That’s the difficulty.”
To solve this nettlesome problem, perhaps Kane should be drawn and quartered to ensure she is still not “very much alive.”
Sen. Art Haywood, D-Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties, pointed out, “You know we don’t really know what she’s doing in the office, so we ought to be careful about what she is or is not doing. We don’t have information with respect to what she is or is not doing. I think that’s what we’re looking for narrowly is the question of can this person remain in the position?”
“I’m trying to understand, in part,” Sen. Haywood continued, “what is it that can be permissibly delegated” by Kane to others in her office?
“Clearly, statutorily,” DA Adams said, “we can delegate that authority. The district attorney and the attorney general can.”
‘It turned out just about every function in the AG’s office can be delegated to others’
It turned out, the DAs explained, that just about every function in the AG’s office could be delegated, if need be, to others.
So Kane’s law license suspension really doesn’t make much difference, the senators were told.
But that doesn’t make much of a headline, does it?
“Plea negotiations?” Sen. Haywood asked. “Is that a function that could either be designated or delegated?”
“Absolutely,” DA Adams said. “Yes, it could be. There is no statutory authority for plea negotiations. Yes, that could be delegated.”
As for other office functions, like investigations, DA Heckler said, “If their authority derives from me, what happens if my authority is called into question? ...I just don’t know the answer to that.”
He shrugged. There was a lot of shrugging from the panel.
It reminded me of a scene in The Sopranos, with Tony and the crew sitting around shrugging at the Bada Bing.
Someone says, “How crazy is that shit?”
Committee members and friends reflect behind the scenes after the senate panel: ‘How crazy is that shit?’
Unfortunately, that hypothetical question, concerning whether the state courts damaged Kane’s authority (not “how crazy is that shit?”), was something that was not too well thought out, like this senate hearing, before the fact.
But do they really care a jot about any of that?
What they are really trying to do here is impeach Kane in a back door manner, and to unconstitutionally limit the subject of conversation during their single-body legislative hearings.
Nor, of course, was any mention made in the hearing room that the senators themselves were five months tardy in delivering a state budget.
Outside the hearing room, in the real world, it was a different story.
After the hearing two state workers stopped me, and engaged me in conversation.
“Don’t these guys have anything better to do than bully Kathleen Kane?” one asked. “Like pass a budget so people can get paid?”
That one should be considered innocent until proven guilty is said to be a phrase of American invention, perhaps even of Pennsylvania origin.
One British commentator writes:
The phrase ‘innocent until proven guilty’ isn’t found in print until the 19th century. It appears to be American in origin, as all the early printed citation of it come from there; for example, a plea to a Gettysburg court by a Samuel Chase, reported in the newspaper The Sprig Of Liberty, February 1805: ‘He wishes the court to consider him innocent until he is proven to be guilty.’
That this fundamental American concept of presumption of innocence is now under attack in the Pennsylvania state senate, courts and other quarters is worthy of note.
Strange as it seems to write, some Pennsylvanians today seem intent on doing their best to erase the presumption of innocence, historically nurtured in Pennsylvania.
From all this we see that rights leak away like sand.
Bit by bit, little by little, word by word, drip by drop, deed by deed.
Until there are no rights left.
Last month Kane’s law license was taken without a hearing. This Monday, a kangaroo court hearing of questionable legality was held by the state senate, with no rules of evidence or attempt at fairness, or a “full hearing,” as required by the state constitution.
Take away that presumption of innocence, and you have a proceeding like the one we saw this week in Pennsylvania’s capitol city, Harrisburg, in the hearing rooms of the state Special Committee on Senate Address.
- Bill Keisling
posted November 12, 2015
Bill Keisling is the author of We All Fall Down: A Chronicle of an Impeachment Foretold, an account of the impeachment of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen.