Every now and then a legislative proposal comes along that makes you wonder how it doesn’t already exist.
That is certainly the case with the timely and easy-to-back District Attorney Modernization Bill. The legislation would eliminate a loophole that has permitted embattled prosecutors to continue overseeing their offices for months even after their law licenses were suspended due to felony charges and other serious accusations. The bill moved through the Senate in a 48-0 vote in the spring — a 48-0 vote on anything in this political climate tells you all you need to know — and is still sitting in the House.
Sen. Gene Yaw, who represents Union County, is one of the prime sponsors of the commonsense legislation. The bill makes it easier to replace a district attorney whose legal troubles result in a suspension, allowing the first assistant District Attorney to assume duties over an interim basis until the suspended district attorney is reinstated or the next election occurs. It would allow an already bogged-down judicial system to keep moving forward.
The bill was originally pitched earlier this year when then-Bradford County District Attorney Chad Salsman was accused of sexually assaulting women who were at one point his clients. Salsman remained in office with a suspended law license suspended for two months before pleading guilty to lesser crimes. He later resigned.
It was thrust back to the spotlight last week when Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas was charged with rape but has remained in office. He has maintained his innocence. The Tribune-Democrat in Johnstown reports that it is unclear if Thomas has been working in the office and that his license to practice law remained active as of mid-week, “but it’s possible the state Supreme Court’s Discipline Board could recommend changing that.”
Thomas’s law license remains in place, for now.
“It’s hard to believe a district attorney wouldn’t need to have an active law license to serve — but there are loopholes and provisions that can allow it,” said Republican Sen. Wayne Langerholc, who pushed the bill with Yaw. “We need to clean that up. That’s why I supported that bill on the Senate floor (in April) and I still support it.”
Matt Osenbach, the legislative director for Yaw, called the bill “non-controversial,” but it has been “unfortunately buried by a cloud of other issues at the forefront of state House members’ concerns — including calls for an election audit — all summer.” Fortunately, Osenbach said state House leaders are planning to consider soon due to “recent events.”
A mechanism must be put into place to remove any uncertainty. A suspended law license means a prosecutor can’t prosecute. Measures are put into place to maintain the continuity of the office to ensure the judicial process continues as well.
NOTE: Opinions expressed in The Daily Item’s editorials are the consensus of the publisher, top newsroom executives and community members of the editorial board. Today’s was written by Managing Editor Bill Bowman.