Photo: Jason Doiy/ALM

A Pennsylvania judge has rejected a former Susquehanna County prosecutor‘s attempt to be named district attorney, siding instead with a woman who was appointed earlier this year by the court to hold the law enforcement post.

On Monday, Senior Judge David E. Grine dismissed attorney William Urbanski’s lawsuit to supplant Marion O’Malley as district attorney. The court found Urbanski, who had been first assistant under the county’s last elected district attorney, failed to meet the law’s residency requirement before he took the oath of office at the beginning of the year.

Although the state Supreme Court has already had to deal with the struggle over who should be Susquehanna’s rightful district attorney since its last elected top prosecutor, Robert Klein, died late last year, Grine’s ruling marks the first time a court has substantively reviewed the merits of Urbanski’s claim.

According to Grine, although the law allows for the office’s first assistant to become the county’s district attorney if the position is vacated, the first assistant is also legally unable to assume the post if he or she did not live in the county for the year before assuming office.

“The petitioner is unable or unqualified to become district attorney since he did not reside in the county for a year prior to when he would have been officially fixed or appointed by operation of the law as district attorney,” Grine said.

Grine ultimately determined that, with Urbanski unable to hold the position, Susquehanna County Court of Common Pleas Judge Jason Legg’s decision to appoint O’Malley as the county’s lead prosecutor was therefore lawful.

“The court has not received any evidence or testimony demonstrating that [O'Malley] does not meet the requisite qualifications,” Grine said.

O’Malley’s attorney, Matthew Haverstick of Kleinbard LLC, said the ruling affirmed his client’s position in the case.

“This confirms that District Attorney O’Malley has always been the lawfully-appointed district attorney of Susquehanna County,” Haverstick said in an emailed statement. “It’s time for Mr. Urbanski to stop wasting resources and let DA O’Malley do her job.”

Urbanski’s attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr. of Rogers Castor, said he disagreed with the ruling, and that Grine should have taken legislative intent into consideration.

“That the court, here, felt forced to resort to common dictionary definitions is a further indication the case is one of first impression to ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court,” he said in an emailed statement. “We are now considering how to see that occurs.”

The dispute between Urbanski and O’Malley began after Klein, the county’s last elected district attorney, died on Dec. 27 following a battle with cancer.

Following Klein’s death, Urbanski, who had been first assistant under Klein, sent a letter to Legg telling him that he had become the district attorney of the county pursuant to 16 P.S. Section 1404(b), which says that “in a county of the fourth through eighth class, the first assistant district attorney shall become district attorney” if any vacancy occurs. That portion goes on to say, “If the first assistant district attorney is unwilling or unable to serve, the judges of the court of common pleas shall fill the vacancy by the appointment of a competent person.”

Legg, however, declined to swear Urbanski in to the position, finding instead that Urbanski failed to meet the residency requirement. But, despite Legg’s holding, Urbanski had Luzerne County Magisterial District Judge James J. Haggerty administer the oath of office on Jan. 1.

In the meantime, Legg reached out to the Susquehanna Bar Association looking for applicants to fill what he deemed to be the vacant district attorney position, and on Jan. 5, the judge appointed O’Malley.

Three days later, Urbanski filed an emergency action with the Supreme Court, arguing that he had not been given a proper hearing on the issue and that the justices should determine him to be the county’s top law enforcement officer. After the justices declined to take up the case, Legg swore O’Malley in as the county’s district attorney, and Urbanski sued her soon after.