HARRISBURG - A Senate panel recommended Wednesday that the full chamber vote on whether to oust Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane, but only if the state Supreme Court reaffirms its decision to suspend her law license.
The seven-member panel stopped short of saying whether it believed Kane should be removed from office. It left that judgment up to the entire Senate, which will consider the question only after the high court rules on Kane's petition to overturn the suspension of her license.
Kane wants the court to reverse the suspension it imposed last fall after she was charged with perjury, obstruction, and other offenses stemming from allegations that she illegally leaked grand jury material and later lied about it under oath.
Kane, 49, a Democrat, has pleaded not guilty.
The highly anticipated decision by the panel split along partisan lines. The committee's four Republicans endorsed the measure to have the full Senate decide Kane's fate if her license is not reinstated. The three Democrats rejected any step to remove the attorney general.
The Supreme Court's decision could be weeks or even months away, sparing the attorney general an immediate vote on her political fate.
Sen. John Gordner (R., Columbia), the committee's chairman, said Wednesday he believes the evidence is "crystal clear" that Kane cannot carry out the duties of her office with a suspended law license and should be removed. But he stressed that this was a personal opinion, and he said senators should make up their own minds.
Kane spokesman Chuck Ardo said the committee's decision to wait for the Supreme Court's ruling was the right one, but that the attorney general "continues to believe that the Senate's attempt to remove her . . . is itself unconstitutional."
Sen. Art Haywood, one of the three Democrats to vote against the measure, said scant evidence supported Kane's removal. Haywood, who represents parts of Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties, said the panel had wrongly dodged taking a stand on her ouster.
"Recommending a vote of the Senate without some recommended outcome undermines the entire process," he said.
The committee's seven senators were unanimous on one point: Should the Supreme Court reinstate Kane's law license, the chamber should drop its efforts to remove her from office.
The Senate launched the removal process against Kane last fall, and not without controversy.
Under a little-known provision of the state constitution, the governor can remove an elected official from office after a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But that provision has not been used in more than a century.
Kane has said the only legal way to remove her is through impeachment, a much lengthier process that has been only rarely used.
Earlier this month, Kane appealed, on an emergency basis, the state Supreme Court's unanimous order to suspend her law license.
In her petition to the Supreme Court, Kane contended that one of its justices had a conflict - he had participated in the exchange of offensive emails that her office exposed - and should not have voted to suspend her last September.
That justice, J. Michael Eakin, has since been suspended for his involvement in the email scandal. And the Supreme Court has three new members, all Democrats, giving Democrats a 5-1 edge on the bench.
Still, Bruce Ledewitz, a law professor at Duquesne University's law school and expert on the state Supreme Court, said he thought it "very unlikely" that the high court would reverse its earlier ruling.
He said Wednesday that it would be easier for the justices to affirm an earlier decision than to upset it. The court's three newly elected justices might wish to steer clear of the Kane scandal, he said.
A rebuff by the high court would not necessarily exhaust Kane's legal options. In letters to the Senate panel, she has argued that its approach was unconstitutional and that impeachment was the only legal way to seek her ouster. She could marshal this argument in a new filing with the State Supreme Court.
In seeking to remove Kane, the bipartisan Senate panel tackled a very narrow question: What duties, if any, can she carry out as the state's highest-ranking law enforcement official while she is not licensed to practice law?
Kane contends that much of her job is administrative, and that she can continue doing the majority of her work without interruption.
But during a series of hearings late last year, the Senate committee heard from legal and constitutional experts, as well as county prosecutors and high-ranking members of Kane's administration, who said legal considerations color virtually every decision the state's top prosecutor makes.
Kane declined to testify at those hearings, sending instead two people to speak on her behalf: her chief of staff, Jonathan Duecker, and former Gov. Ed Rendell. Both men said top prosecutors function more as chief executives, and that deputies can perform the majority of the day-to-day legal work.