Susquehanna County still has two lawyers claiming to be the local district attorney, and the matter is only gaining in complexity after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court declined to weigh in.
For the past month, a dispute has been brewing between the two attorneys—William Urbanski and Marion O’Malley. As of late last week, Urbanski had sued O’Malley in the Court of Common Pleas seeking to have her removed from office, and, according to one lawyer involved in the case, the dispute could put prosecutions in the northeastern Pennsylvania county in jeopardy.
Urbanski and O’Malley are both former prosecutors.
Urbanski had been the first assistant district attorney under former Susquehanna DA Robert Klein, who died late last year.
O’Malley had worked as first assistant district attorney under Klein’s predecessor, Jason Legg, who later went on to become Susquehanna’s only commissioned judge.
The dispute arose after Klein died in December. Although Urbanski contended that he should take over leading the office, Legg declined to swear Urbanski into the position, finding, instead, that Urbanski had not been a resident of Susquehanna before Klein’s death.
Urbanski had sued Legg last month, seeking that the Supreme Court invalidate Legg’s interpretation of the residency requirements. On Monday, the Supreme Court declined to take up the action, but said Urbanski could still raise a quo warranto action in the Susquehanna trial court, which could “be heard on an expedited basis.”
According to Urbanski’s attorney, Bruce L. Castor Jr. of Rogers Castor, that decision kicked off a series of events that have further complicated the situation and could jeopardize prosecutions underway in the county.
Before Monday, although O’Malley had been challenging Urbanski’s claim to the position in court, Legg had agreed not to officially administer the oath of office to O’Malley until after a court had ruled on the issue. In the meantime, Urbanski had been leading the office.
However, after the Supreme Court declined to take up the dispute, O’Malley was sworn in as the county’s lead prosecutor. She then fired Urbanski the same day.
Urbanski responded with the quo warranto suit, which he filed Wednesday.
According to Castor, Urbanski had agreed to have O’Malley assume the office because he would not have been able to file the quo warranto action without someone else as the acting district attorney. However, he said, Urbanski had not expected to be fired without having a court ruling on the dispute first.
“It was a wonderful academic problem, until the purported firing of Urbanski made it into an actual problem,” Castor said.
Castor contended that, with both Urbanski and O’Malley in the office, the prosecutors would have their bases covered legally so none of the criminal prosecutions could be questioned once a court sorted out the dispute. However, he said, with O’Malley heading the office, if it is determined that Urbanski was the rightful district attorney, the cases she handles could be invalidated.
“I love this case as an academic argument, but when it comes down to it, there are victims of crime expecting their cases to be properly adjudicated, and right now there’s some doubt about that,” Castor said.
Castor said that the Susquehanna DA’s Office typically is handling about 300 cases at any given time.
O’Malley’s attorney is Matthew Haverstick of Kleinbard LLC. Haverstick did not return a call for comment Wednesday, but on Tuesday, the day Urbanski filed suit, Haverstick said “it would be in the best interest of everybody in the county if it just stays as-is and O’Malley stays put.”
“In the event Mr. Urbanski wants to try to challenge it, the Supreme Court has made clear that the matter has to be dealt with quickly,” Haverstick said.
With the quo warranto action now in the trial court, an out-of-county judge is expected to be selected to preside over the case.
Castor said the lower court could make a ruling quickly, but, depending on whether the case must be appealed directly to the Supreme Court, or if it must first go through the Commonwealth Court, a full resolution could be a long way off.