Judge rejects suspended DA Thomas' bid to have pay restored
May 9—SOMERSET, Pa. — Suspended Somerset County District Attorney Jeffrey Thomas' legal attempt to have his pay restored was rejected on Monday by a Somerset County judge.
Judge Daniel Rullo ruled that county officials did not act improperly by suspending Thomas' pay after his law license was suspended in late 2021 — a move that came after criminal charges were filed against Thomas.
Thomas' lawsuit against the county served as an early test of a 2021 Pennsylvania law that created a requirement for county district attorneys to have active law licenses in order to oversee their offices.
"By making a suspended law license grounds for both suspension and disqualification, we think it is clear that the legislature intended to prohibit a district attorney with a suspended law license from performing the duties of the office and receiving compensation that attaches to the office," Rullo wrote in a 26-page order.
Rullo wrote that a district attorney's right to salary and compensation is attached to the office — and without being able to meet Pennsylvania's qualifications to hold that office, Thomas was not entitled to that pay.
"The only right (Thomas) retained in the office of DA was to retake the office of District Attorney if his law license was reinstated during his elected term," Rullo wrote.
The judge ruled against all three of Thomas' court arguments.
One main argument was that the amendment the county relied on to suspend Thomas' pay was "wrongly applied retroactively" because that amendment didn't become law until after Thomas' law license was suspended. Rullo cited prior case law in ruling that the argument didn't apply because Thomas had no vested right to that salary.
"Public officers possess no vested right to a public office," he wrote, citing a 1991 Commonwealth Court case.
Thomas' Pittsburgh-area attorney, Richard Haft, was unable to issue an immediate response to the decision on Tuesday. In a brief telephone interview, Haft said he had not yet received a copy of the ruling and needed time to review it.
Both sides also filed briefs arguing over whether Pennsylvania should be a party in the case because it reimburses the county for more than half of the DA's pay. Adding the commonwealth as a party to the case would have given Commonwealth Court instant jurisdiction — rather than acting solely as an appeals court.
Pennsylvania officials did not seek to join the case, and Rullo ruled that the commonwealth wasn't an "indispensable party," saying that due process rights weren't violated.
Thomas was earning more than $185,000 as the county's top prosecutor until he was suspended while facing criminal charges in November 2021.
He remains in a county prison awaiting sentencing for the indecent assault and strangulation of a Windber woman in September 2021. A Somerset County jury convicted him of those charges and also acquitted him of several other serious counts at the conclusion of a trial in March.