By Kevin Murphy
KANSAS CITY, Kansas (Reuters) - Overzealous prosecution of abortion providers has cost Kansas' former Attorney General Phill Kline his right to practice law after the state Supreme Court on Friday found he violated 11 rules of professional conduct and suspended his law license indefinitely.
In a 154-page report, the seven-member court unanimously found that Kline failed to recognize the line between "overzealous advocacy" and operating within the limits of the law and his professional obligations.
"The violations we have found are significant and numerous, and Kline's inability or refusal to acknowledge or address their significance is particularly troubling in light of his service as the chief prosecuting attorney for this state and its most populous county," the court wrote.
Kline, 53, will have to wait three years to re-apply for his license.
A Republican, Kline was attorney general from 2003 to 2007. He later worked as a district attorney in Johnson County, Kansas, and is now a law professor at Liberty University in Virginia. He did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
An outspoken foe of abortion, Kline had clashed with abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood for years on whether they were abiding by all abortion laws. He prosecuted cases involving Planned Parenthood and George Tiller, a Wichita-based doctor who provided abortions before being murdered in 2009.
Two years ago, the Kansas Board of Discipline for Attorneys recommended a suspension of Kline's license indefinitely for "ethical misconduct."
In upholding the board's decision, the Supreme Court ruled that Kline committed professional misconduct when he ordered his attorney general office staff to attach sealed documents to a public brief, and when he later directed staff to file a pleading with the court that contained misleading information. The court also found that, as district attorney, Kline gave false court testimony about patient medical records his office obtained in a criminal probe of abortion providers.
In a hearing before the Supreme Court, the state's disciplinary administrator requested that Kline be disbarred, but the Supreme Court said Kline's actions failed to reach the "intent" threshold that would merit disbarment.
"We conclude indefinite suspension is the appropriate discipline," the court stated, specifying three reasons: "Kline's selfish motive; his pattern of misconduct; and his refusal to acknowledge the wrongful nature of any of his misconduct."
Kline has insisted he committed no violations. He had already lost his license for not paying an annual registration fee, but he said in an interview after the Board of Discipline ruling that a suspension could hurt his ability to teach or practice law anywhere.
At the time, he said in a news release that his mistake was his willingness to investigate powerful people no matter where the evidence would lead.
Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, said Kline pursued 107 baseless criminal charges against his organization and that he was pleased to see Kline's law license suspended.
"The time and taxpayer money Kline spent on a misguided crusade against Planned Parenthood can never be recovered, nor can the time and resources we had to divert from preventive services for Kansas," Brownlie said.
But an organization that supported Kline as he fought to keep his law license, The Life Legal Defense Foundation, was critical of the court.
"This case had nothing to do with the fair application of the rules of professional conduct and everything to do with being politically correct on the issue of abortion," said Dana Cody, president and executive director of the group. "It is disappointing that the Kansas Supreme Court is more interested in political appeasement than the pursuit of justice."
Five of the seven Supreme Court justices who made the ruling on Friday were appointed to take the place of five members who recused themselves.
(Reporting by Kevin Murphy; Editing by Greg McCune, Gunna Dickson and Tim Dobbyn)