Analysis: Musical Chairs Of Pennsylvania Attorneys General

By John Celock

If you’re having trouble keeping track of who is Pennsylvania’s attorney general, don’t worry the job is the state’s version of musical chairs for the rest of the year.

To catch up, Democrat Kathleen Kane resigned as state attorney general last week following her conviction in a case relating to the leaking of grand jury evidence. Kane’s conviction came after a rocky two-year period where Kane found herself alienated not only from everyone else in Keystone State politics but from almost everyone in the office she led. Without getting into the details of Kane’s soap opera like case – porn e-mails and the state Supreme Court were both involved – the case has been at the heart of the turbulent situation in the attorney general’s office.

When Kane was elected in 2012 among her personal decisions was to retain Bruce Beemer, who had been chief of staff to her predecessor, Linda Kelly, as her special counsel. She later promoted Beemer to first deputy attorney general. Beemer and Kane would end up having a rocky relationship. When Kane’s law license was suspended last year, she first turned over the legal duties of her office to Beemer as her top deputy but after Beemer decided to testify against her earlier this year, she instead created a solicitor general’s post to handle all of her legal duties, but keep Beemer in place as her number two. For solicitor general, Kane hired Republican Bruce Castor, a former Montgomery County district attorney and county commissioner.

Castor is not an unknown entity, having served years at the top of politics in suburban Philadelphia and having run himself for attorney general in the 2004 Republican primary, a race he lost to Tom Corbett, who went on to become governor. Castor had left the district attorney’s office after eight years in 2007 to reenter private practice and to run for the part time post as county commissioner, a job he held for two terms. Castor’s first term on the county commission was rocky with his fellow Republican commissioner aligning with the commission’s sole Democrat to lock Castor out of the chairmanship and vice chairmanship. In his second term, Castor found himself serving alongside Montgomery County’s first ever-Democratic majority. Castor did not seek another commissioner term in 2015, instead unsuccessfully seeking a return to the district attorney’s office.

In a slightly unusual move, Castor did not give up his private practice when he joined Kane’s office, but set up a role as an independent contractor, with his state duties comprising the majority of his day. He did give up a client that was interrelated to Kane’s case and the ongoing case regarding the coaches of the Penn State football team. Castor also found himself ordered by Kane not to read news reports of the case against her.

Effectively sidelined by Kane, Beemer left the attorney general’s office early this summer after Gov. Tom Wolf (D) appointed him as the state inspector general. Following this, Kane tapped Castor to serve as first deputy attorney general, in addition to solicitor general. With the new title, Castor automatically became Kane’s designated successor in case she left office early.

In the background of the drama surrounding Kane and her office, a campaign was playing out for Kane’s eventual successor since Kane had decided not to seek reelection. Montgomery County Commission Chairman Josh Shapiro (D) is facing off against state Sen. John Rafferty (R) to become Pennsylvania’s next attorney general in January. Shapiro had served on the county commission alongside Castor for four years.

Castor assumed the position of acting attorney general last week after Kane resigned but the next day Wolf announced his nomination of Beemer as a caretaker attorney general. Beemer’s nomination is subject to confirmation by the state Senate when they reconvene next month and would go through the end of Kane’s term in January. Beemer would return to the inspector general’s office in January.

The practice of filling state row offices in Pennsylvania with caretaker appointees is not unusual. Kelly was appointed by Corbett in 2011 to fill the job until a new attorney general was elected in 2012. In fact, Corbett held the attorney general’s office as an appointee from 1995 until 1997 before his 2004 election. In addition Pennsylvania Treasurer Tim Reese (I) was appointed to the post by Wolf last year to fill a vacancy. Reese is not seeking a full term this year.

The main difference though is the amount of time left. Kelly held the job for over 18 months while Corbett’s first stint lasted 15 months. Reese’s tenure is scheduled to last 18 months. Based on the timeline of the Senate confirmation process, Beemer would have four months at most as attorney general. Wolf has explained that Beemer’s background in the attorney general’s office and relationship with the staff best position him to lead the office in the aftermath of Kane’s conviction and until a new attorney general takes office.

While Wolf’s intentions are admirable and Beemer might have a good rapport and expertise for the job, it seems that the move is adding another layer of turbulence to an office that has been in the middle of a hurricane for over two years. Is it the best decision to have two more transitions face the office between now and January in an office where for a year either the leaders kept changing or there were questions on who had the authority to do what?

By and large offices like the Pennsylvania attorney general run themselves but do require leadership from the top. There is no question that either Beemer or Castor can provide this interim leadership until January. Also given the limited time frame – made more limited by the transition after the November election – it is clear that neither would be able to do more than be an administrator during that period and not push for new initiatives. At the end of the day, it might be best for only one acting attorney general to serve during that period but at the same time for Beemer to play some sort of role in helping the office function during that period, instead of constant changes in the job.