Pa. House votes to impeach Philly DA Larry Krasner; Senate will hold trial | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pa. House votes to impeach Philly DA Larry Krasner; Senate will hold trial

click to enlarge Pa. House votes to impeach Philly DA Larry Krasner; Senate will hold trial
Marley Parish/Pennsylvania Capital-Star
Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner takes questions from reporters after a press conference in Harrisburg on Fri., Oct. 21.
The Pennsylvania House voted 107- 85 on Wednesday to send articles of impeachment to the state Senate, alleging that Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner engaged in misconduct in office and obstructed a House committee investigation.

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who was elected interim president pro tempore on Tuesday, told reporters that the upper chamber would hold additional session days for an impeachment trial, adding that the Senate can’t ignore articles of impeachment from the House. The Senate’s last scheduled session day was Tuesday.

“None of us can comment on [the House vote] because we are the judge and jury in the Senate,” Ward, R-Westmoreland, said, declining further comment.

Ward did not say when the Senate could reconvene to conduct the trial.

Krasner said in a statement that his impeachment was the first time the General Assembly voted to remove anyone from office because their ideas were unpopular.

Voters showed that they support his policies, including improving support for crime victims and survivors, scientific approaches to law enforcement, and investing to prevent violence before it happens, Krasner said.

“They have impeached me without presenting a single shred of evidence connecting our policies to any uptick in crime. We were never given the opportunity to defend our ideas and policies – policies I would have been proud to explain. That Pennsylvania Republicans willfully avoided hearing the facts about my office is shameful,” Krasner said. 

The vote followed two-and-a-half hours of debate in which Democrats, who opposed the measure along party lines, characterized the impeachment as a misuse of the chamber’s constitutional power that would set a harmful precedent for future legislatures.

They suggested that the General Assembly was at fault for failing to combat the surge in crime Republicans attributed to Krasner’s progressive criminal justice policies, which GOP lawmakers framed as a refusal to enforce the laws of the commonwealth.

One Republican, Rep. Michael Puskaric, of Allegheny County, voted against impeachment.

“It is sad that in a lame duck session, we are using the extraordinary power we have with such disregard,” Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, said. “If we want to have a serious conversation, if we really want to set the precedent that the standard for being impeached is this amorphous dereliction of duty, then I would ask us to pick up a mirror and ask do we think it’s dereliction of our duty?”

Kenyatta said lawmakers have repeatedly ignored gun safety legislation and failed to provide money to fix mold- and asbestos-laden schools or address poverty as the roots of crime.

“Should you be impeached for the votes that I’ve seen taken on this floor that take food literally out of the mouths of the most vulnerable people in our communities, especially in cities?” Kenyatta asked.

During floor debate, Republican lawmakers read headlines about shootings and robberies in Philadelphia, and recounted anecdotes about family and constituents who live in or visit the city, framing the impeachment as a measure of relief for residents living in fear.

“New gun laws are not going to get the district attorney off his butt in Philadelphia and protect the people that elected him into the office. You can put 1,000 [laws] there and he’s not going to do it. I’m just dumbfounded that we’d even go down that route,” House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said.

Impeachment is a rarely-used power granted by the state constitution to the House. It has voted to impeach 10 times, and the Senate has convicted only three elected officials in Pennsylvania’s history, Rep. Joseph Hohenstein, D-Philadelphia said.

The person most recently convicted in an impeachment trial was state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen, who was found to have improperly discussed cases before the court. He had previously been convicted criminally of conspiring to illegally obtain prescription drugs. 

Before Larsen, the last impeachment was in the mid-1800s.

The vote to impeach Krasner, on the last day of the House’s session, capped nearly six months of maneuvering by Republicans that started in the spring. Reps. Toren Ecker, R-Adams, and Josh Kail, R-Beaver, called for Krasner’s impeachment after a mass shooting in Philadelphia’s popular South Street entertainment district.

The House voted in July to impanel a Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order, which started an investigation and held hearings. But the committee said in an interim report released last month that it would continue investigating and provide a recommendation before the end of the session.

The investigation prompted Krasner to file a lawsuit challenging the House committee’s authority to investigate the district attorney’s office. The House passed a bipartisan resolution in September to hold Krasner in contempt for refusing a subpoena. 

Krasner and the committee clashed again when Krasner insisted on testifying in a public hearing. Instead of opening the hearing to the public, as Krasner requested, Republican leaders canceled it.

Lawmakers have taken other actions to intervene in law enforcement in Philadelphia. 

The House approved a Senate bill on Tuesday that had been amended to permit the appointment of a special prosecutor to handle crimes committed on Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority property. 

Intended to address crime in Philadelphia’s public transit stations, the language was grafted onto legislation to allow municipalities to create protected bike lanes.

Rep. Martina White, the only Republican state lawmaker representing Philadelphia, introduced articles of impeachment the same day as the interim report.

Hohenstein said the interim report does not suggest or support impeachment.

Reading from the report’s conclusion, Hohenstein said, “addressing the increase in crime in Philadelphia requires the cooperation and collaboration of the stakeholders who share in the responsibility of addressing public safety.”

Rep. Mark Gillen, R-Berks, rejected the report’s call for a deeper examination of Philadelphia’s crime problem.

“The time for conversation is over. The time for communication and collaboration is over. The time for action is today,” Gillen said.

Appealing to his colleagues to vote against approving the articles, Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, warned that the impeachment would set a new standard under which legislators, judges and executive branch officials could be attacked over ideological differences.

“A ‘no’ vote today is a statement of your belief that our state constitution is a sacred document, not a political weapon,” Zabel said. “ … Every single no vote matters and it will send a message not just to Pennsylvania but to posterity.”

Peter Hall and Marley Parish are reporters with the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.