HARRISBURG - The state Senate voted unanimously Wednesday to launch the process that could remove Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane from office.
The Republican-controlled chamber scheduled a Jan. 12 hearing on whether Kane, who is facing criminal charges and whose law license has been suspended, can continue to function as the state's top law-enforcement official.
At the hearing, Kane, a Democrat, will be able to testify and present evidence, if she chooses to participate. Her lawyer could also speak.
Kane has questioned the Senate's authority to remove her from elective office, saying the only legal way to do so is through impeachment, a much lengthier process that begins in the House.
"The attorney general continues to believe that the Senate's action is unconstitutional and will decide how to proceed from here," Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said.
Though all of the Democrats in the Republican-controlled chamber joined their GOP colleagues in approving the hearing, several cautioned that their decision did not mean they would vote to remove her.
"While we agree there should be a hearing, we remain cautiously concerned about what happens after that," said Sen. Anthony H. Williams (D., Phila.).
At least one Republican - Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf of Montgomery County - said he, too, was concerned that a removal hearing was premature.
Though she has a suspended license, Kane is still a lawyer, he said.
"She continues to be a member of the bar," Greenleaf said. "I think it's important for us to explore this . . . before we go too far down the road."
In deciding whether to remove Kane, the Senate has relied on a provision of the state constitution that allows the governor, after a two-thirds vote in the Senate, to remove an official from office for "reasonable cause."
Republicans control 31 seats in the Senate. If the party votes as a bloc, Kane's opponents would need to pick up only three Democratic votes.
Gov. Wolf, a Democrat, has called on Kane to resign, but has said he is still deciding what he will do should the Senate approve ousting her.
Senators are focused narrowly on whether the attorney general can perform the functions of her elective office with a suspended law license. The state Supreme Court suspended Kane's right to practice law after she was charged with perjury, conspiracy, and other crimes.
The constitution requires the attorney general to be a member of the bar, but does not address whether a suspended lawyer can remain in the job, or how or whether this restricts the work the attorney general can do.
That has led to debate over how much authority Kane, whose office handles hundreds of criminal and civil cases, can retain.
A seven-member bipartisan Senate committee held hearings on that question last month. At the hearings, constitutional and legal ethics experts - as well as Kane's own top deputies - testified that many of her duties and decisions require an active law license.
Kane has said that she believes the majority of what she does is administrative and that she can carry out "98 percent" of her duties.
The Senate committee, which voted, 5-2, last month to forge ahead with a removal proceeding, will hold the Jan. 12 hearing.
After the hearing, the committee will have 15 days to submit a report to the Senate, which would then hold the final vote on whether Kane can remain in office.
Kane faces criminal charges based on allegations that she leaked confidential information to a newspaper in an attempt to smear a former state prosecutor with whom she was feuding.
Kane has pleaded not guilty.
She has said she believes the criminal case against her was "corruptly manufactured" by Republican men who are trying to block her from exposing a trove of pornographic emails she discovered on her office's servers that were traded among judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, and others.
The emails contain pornographic images and videos, as well as crude and offensive jokes that demean women, minorities, gays and lesbians, and various religious groups.
Kane has named nine people who participated in the exchange of the messages, though dozens, if not more, were part of the email chains. That has led to sharp criticism that she has selectively released the emails, both to distract the public from her legal and political troubles and to embarrass those she blames for them.
Last week, Kane said she was hiring a special prosecutor to sort through the messages and decide whether crimes were committed in swapping them.