HARRISBURG - The district attorney and county commissioners finally had their day in court Wednesday in the ongoing dispute concerning oversight of the prosecutor’s office.
A five judge panel of the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg heard arguments in the case, which revolves around the commissioners’ ability to review Lancaster County District Attorney Craig Stedman's use of drug forfeiture funds and personnel issues in his office.
But the core issues were left mostly untouched as the court wrestled with whether it is the proper venue to hear the dispute.
The Commonwealth Court is one of the state’s appeals courts. It only has original jurisdiction, that is, the ability to be the first court to hear a case, if the action is by or against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Stedman sued the Lancaster County commissioners in March. He initially named named Attorney General Josh Shapiro (an officer of the Commonwealth) as a “nominal/non-adverse” party and later described Shapiro as an "indispensable" party to the case.
The judges peppered lawyers with questions about whether their court actually could hear the case.
"It's clear that the attorney General has some tangential involvement, but to be indispensable you have to be seeking some action from him," President Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt said.
Responding to the judge, Mark Seiberling of Kleinbard, LLC, representing the district attorney’s office, said his client wants the court to declare that the commissioners cannot interfere with the auditing and enforcement roles provided by the state's drug forfeiture laws. Those powers are reserved for the attorney general, Seiberling said.
"We believe that (the commissioners) are trying not only to invade District Attorney Stedman's role (and) the county controller's role, but also the attorney general's role," he said.
The commissioners' attorney, Mark Bradshaw, of Stevens & Lee, refuted the idea that the commissioners are trying to usurp anyone's authority. He said that the commissioners have not taken any affirmative steps to limit the district attorney's or attorney general's powers. Rather, Bradshaw said, the commissioners are simply exercising their First Amendment rights by commenting on a matter of public concern.
"(This case) is only nominally about drug forfeiture," Bradshaw said. "It is really about whether the district attorney can use the court system to silence public debate."
For its part, the Office of Attorney General has remained mostly silent. No attorney offered any argument for the office Wednesday, and in his court filings Shapiro’s office did not address whether his office was, in fact, indispensable.
Elizabethtown College political science professor Kyle Kopko, who attending the hearing with students, said he thought the crux of the case was a question of jurisdiction.
“They’re probably going to say this isn’t something they have to hear, because the Attorney General isn’t an indispensable party,” Kopko said. “Obviously, that doesn’t make the merits go away.”
Assuming the case is dismissed by the Commonwealth Court, Kopko said the district attorney will have to choose whether to continue with the case in another venue, a choice that will then be on the shoulders of his successor in January. Stedman’s term expires this year and he is not seeking reelection.
Stedman’s attorney said after court that the district attorney's office plans to pursue the case if the Commonwealth Court rules it does not have jurisdiction.