Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane has appointed the former top law enforcement officer in Maryland to head a wide-ranging investigation into the chain of pornographic emails exchanged among state prosecutors, judges, and law enforcement officials on government computers.

Standing at a dais inside the National Constitution Center, Kane said Douglas Gansler, Maryland's former attorney general, would lead a team of lawyers from his Washington firm to review the emails and decide whether those who circulated them broke any laws.

In carrying out his investigation, Gansler will have "the sword of prosecutorial powers," Kane said, including issuing subpoenas, inspecting confidential documents, and bringing criminal charges.

She said there were "thousands" of offensive emails, a sampling of which she displayed on a Jumbotron before she spoke. The images, she said, exposed a "constitutional crisis" in state government, because they ridicule and demean women, minorities, gays, and lesbians, and reveal a justice system laden with biases.

"No African American should walk into a courtroom where the judge or prosecutor or defense attorney mocks him or her," she said. "No woman should go to work and be subjected to consistent treatment of disgusting indignity by women-haters because they were born with one less body part - which, the last I heard, does not contain any extra brain cells.

"I will not allow it on my watch - no matter how long that watch lasts," said Kane, whose term could be cut short because the state Senate has begun a proceeding to remove her from office. The Senate acted in response to the criminal charges against Kane, along with the suspension of her law license.

Kane took no questions after her announcement.

Gansler, who followed her at the lectern, said he and his team would be independent and would not even consult with Kane during the inquiry.

"We will take the facts wherever they lead us," he said. "And if crimes are uncovered, we will prosecute them. . . . We have no baggage. We have no preconceived notions other than to do our job and do it well."

Kane, a Democrat, has decried the offensive and pornographic emails since she discovered over a year ago that her office had been a hub for swapping them.

In calling for further investigation of the emails, she has the support of a growing number of elected officials in Philadelphia, including members of City Council and the legislature, and the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women.

Over the last 15 months, the email scandal has forced more than a half-dozen people to resign, including state Supreme Court Justice Seamus McCaffery and a high-ranking member of Gov. Tom Corbett's former administration.

Another Supreme Court justice, J. Michael Eakin, is under renewed scrutiny by the state's Judicial Conduct Board after Kane publicly released some of his messages from a private account with offensive content.

Critics have accused Kane of using the emails to distract from her mounting legal troubles. And she could swiftly face pushback on her decision to appoint a special prosecutor.

The scope of the inquiry almost immediately raised questions about whether Kane has the authority to launch the investigation - and why she waited nearly two years after first discovering the messages to do so.

Kane's law license was suspended in September, shortly after she was criminally charged with leaking confidential information to a newspaper in a bid to embarrass a political enemy.

Without an active license, she is barred from making legal decisions, and legal ethics experts have questioned whether she can even put her name on news releases, let alone launch a criminal investigation.

"There has to be some measure of direction given for the investigation - and that direction requires a legal analysis that a person under a suspended license should not be giving to other lawyers," said Bruce A. Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who now is a law professor at St. Vincent College in Latrobe, Pa.

After announcing Gansler's appointment, Kane released a five-page document that described his mission. Her office would not say who wrote it.

Aside from reviewing the offensive emails, it said, Gansler will investigate whether the exchanges improperly disclosed details of criminal investigations or violated grand jury secrecy. He also is to evaluate whether any of the communications demonstrated "improper collusion" in criminal cases, or displayed lack of impartiality on the part of judges and others in the criminal justice system.

Kane did not elaborate on those points Tuesday.

Gansler said that his inquiry would focus on questionable emails that were captured on the attorney general's computer servers. Last week, Kane called for an examination of emails on every government server on which offensive or X-rated materials were traded.

Gansler said he would investigate everyone involved in the email chains, including the dozens of prosecutors, agents, and others who still work for Kane. After her initial discovery of the troubling emails, Kane fired some of the employees involved in the porn scandal while disciplining others. One has since been promoted.

Gansler was vague on what, if any, crimes might have been committed, saying that he had not yet reviewed any of the messages.

Kane has shrugged off questions about Gansler's appointment, saying she viewed it as a policy decision, and that even with a suspended law license, she still has full authority over hiring and firing.

On Tuesday, she took a shot at those who questioned her authority - including people on her staff: "Are you a white male? Are you or one of your buddies in this email network? Are you trying to get my job without the benefit of having to run for it and be chosen by the people of Pennsylvania?" Four of her top aides have questioned what her authority consists of without an active license.

Though Gansler has handled high-profile cases - including prosecuting the snipers who terrorized the Washington area in 2002 - he also became mired in controversy last year when he made an unsuccessful run to be the Democratic candidate for Maryland governor.

He faced scrutiny for ordering his security detail to routinely break traffic laws to avoid delays, as well as for making controversial remarks about a political opponent.

He also made national headlines when, in 2013, he was photographed at a beach party where there was apparent underage drinking and he did nothing to put a stop to it. He later said he was there to check in on his son, and said it was a mistake not to act.

In the early 2000s, Gansler was reprimanded by Maryland's highest court for comments that could have prejudiced a murder-for-hire case he was handling.

It was not immediately clear how much work Gansler, who is not licensed to practice law in Pennsylvania, can actually perform. Also unclear was how much he will be paid. Gansler estimated that the bill would not top $2 million: He would be paid a per diem rate equal to Kane's $158,764 annual salary, or roughly $435 a day, and his firm would be paid at a reduced rate to what it normally charges.

Kane's choice of venue for Tuesday's announcement was striking. The Constitution Center was where she declared, at the height of her political popularity during her first year in office, that she would not defend the state's ban on gay marriage.

Though Kane has repeatedly denounced the emails and has vowed repeatedly to expose all of them, she has released only a sampling, leading to criticism that she is using them as a weapon to target critics or others she believes have wronged her.

Gansler said Tuesday that he would consider making them publicly available.

Kane, who has pleaded not guilty to perjury, conspiracy, and other crimes, has maintained that the case against her was "corruptly manufactured" by angry Republican men who were trying to prevent her from exposing the email scandal.

Her trial is expected to begin next year.

717-787-5934

@AngelasInk