The Incredibly Simple Way to Fix the Attorney General’s Office

Hint: It's not by making Pennsylvania's political culture more like Philly's.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane arrives at a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Attorney General Kathleen Kane arrives at a news conference Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015, in Philadelphia.

Quick poll: Who here thinks we can solve the problems that ail the state Attorney General’s office by making Pennsylvania’s political culture more like Philly’s?

Anyone? Anyone?

The question is asked because that’s precisely what G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young recommend in an op-ed making the rounds of state newspapers this week. Not in so many words, but the effect is the same: They suggest that Kathleen Kane’s troubles in office are a problem of politics — and the solution is to create a “resign to run” requirement for that office, forcing the incumbent to quit if he or she chooses to run for another post.

Which is exactly the same requirement that members of City Council face when they want to run for mayor — or any other elected office — aside from the one they hold. Now, it’s been about a decade since Councilman Rick Mariano left office in disgrace, and a little longer yet since an FBI bug was found in John Street’s office, but does anybody really want to claim that the city’s political culture has been exemplary since then? Or that “resign to run” is the reason we haven’t seen any criminal prosecutions at City Hall lately?


It’s not even clear that the problem Madonna and Young are trying to solve is real. Pennsylvania has only been electing its attorneys general since 1980; the state has elected just five people to the position since then. Only one of Kane’s predecessors — Ernie Preate, who ended up serving a year in federal prison — suffered a career-ending scandal while on the job. (Kane’s story still hasn’t played out yet, but it’s not looking good at present.) Two of five attorneys general becoming embroiled in scandal isn’t a great track record, but it’s also not a huge sample size.

Still, the duo say: “Politics and law enforcement do not work well together in Pennsylvania’s political culture. Virtually all of the problems encountered by attorneys general are linked to their political activities or aspirations.”

If that’s the case, then, why not insulate the attorney general’s office from that political pressure as much as possible? Yes, 43 states elect their attorney general, but the rest don’t: Why not emulate the federal model and have the governor appoint the state’s top law enforcement officer, subject to approval from the Pennsylvania Senate?

I originally made this suggestion a year ago, when Kane’s scandals were, by comparison, embryonic compared to what she faces today. The problem, I said then, is that “there’s nothing about politics that enhances the administration of justice.”

A year later — after watching Kane come to the cusp of indictment because she allegedly used her office to embarrass a rival, after watching Lynne Abraham suggest she declined to prosecute bad cops because the votes weren’t there, after watching a million collisions between politics and law enforcement as police scandals erupted everywhere — that sentence seems truer than ever. It was, in fact, a profound understatement: Politics tends to frustrate the ends of justice more than it serves them.

Appointing attorneys general appears to go farther toward addressing the issue identified by Madonna and Young than a new “resign to run” rule ever would. Harvard Law Review studied the matter last year and found this:

In fact, 36.8 percent of elected attorneys general went on to seek higher political office, while less than 20 percent of appointed attorneys general did so. Not only does an appointment system avoid political pressure, but appointed attorneys general tend to see themselves more as lawyers than as politicians, as opposed to elected attorneys general, who regard their position as primarily political.

Madonna and Young might disagree: “If we throw out elections, we also throw out independence, which is not a good bargain.”

Maybe, but there’s probably no perfect way to construct the office. If politics really is the source of problems in the attorney general’s office — as Madonna and Young say — the solution seems simple: Cut politics out of the equation.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.