A new law sponsored by state Sen. Lisa Baker will help taxpayers avoid lawsuits like the one filed by a former Susquehanna County deputy prosecutor who sought the position of district attorney after the untimely death of district attorney Robert Klein in 2017.
Baker’s bill clarified what she calls a discrepancy in the county code over the legal requirement that a candidate to succeed the district attorney live in the county for at least a year. The bill applies to counties with populations of 210,000 or fewer.
Former deputy district attorney William C. Urbanski filed suit in 2018 claiming that as the county’s first deputy he automatically became district attorney upon Klein’s death in December of 2017.
But President Judge Jason Legg rejected Urbanski’s claim and refused to swear him in as district attorney. Legg disqualified Urbanski as he had not, as required by the county code, lived inside the county for at least a year. Urbanski instead arranged to have himself sworn in as district attorney in Rice Twp., Luzerne County.
Legg, himself a former district attorney, instead appointed current district attorney Marion O’Malley, his former first assistant, who promptly dismissed Urbanski. O’Malley won election to the post last year.
Senior Judge David E. Grime later agreed with Legg, also ruling that Urbanski failed to satisfy the residency requirement. Urbanski’s appeal to the state supreme court was also unsuccessful.
Baker’s amendment to the law adds the phrase “satisfies the requirements of section 1401,” the section of the county code which lays out basic qualifications to fill the office such as having lived in the county for at least a year, being at least 25 years old and having been admitted to practice before the state Supreme Court for at least a year.
“This small change ensures an orderly transition for future district attorney vacancies in rural counties,” said Baker (R-20), chairwoman of the senate judiciary committee. “It is a good reminder that solid legislation tends to be rooted in the community and greatly influenced by local residents,” Baker said in a prepared statement released late last month.
Besides clarifying the county code, Baker’s bill could also keep taxpayers from getting stuck with unwanted litigation costs stemming from litigation surrounding the filling of vacant district attorney positions.
In December 2019 county commissioners said they were forced to pay a $63,000 legal bill sent by attorneys for O’Malley, who Urbanski sued. Commissioners said that checks with the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania and others persuaded them to pay the bill or potentially incur more legal expenses. The county solicitors office did not represent O’Malley as she had hired a lawyer before she was sworn in and became a county employee, they said.
Gov. Wolf signed Baker’s amendment into law, formally known as Act 78 of 2020, Sept. 28. Act 78 will take effect in 60 days. Senators Mario M. Scavello (R-40), Scott Martin (R-13), Doug Mastriano (R-33), Bob Mensch (R-44) and Joe Pittman (R-41) served as co-sponsors.
Urbanski, the former head of the Luzerne County Republican Party, lost the May 2019 primary election to O’Malley, also a Republican, 1,722 to 3,709 votes. Urbanski started work as an assistant district attorney in Susquehanna County in February of 2016.