HARRISBURG — The Pennsylvania House on Wednesday impeached Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, accusing him of “misbehavior in office” and advancing the extraordinary and rarely used process of trying to remove the city’s top prosecutor.
Although the move had been telegraphed for months by the Republican-led chamber, debate on the House floor was deeply divided and fiery before a 107-85 vote, almost exclusively along party lines. The chamber hasn’t impeached an officeholder in nearly 30 years, and the Pennsylvania legislature has sought to remove someone from office only a handful of times over the last three centuries.
Republican lawmakers said the action was necessary because Krasner, a Democrat, has implemented criminal-justice reform policies that they say have exacerbated the city’s gun violence crisis. On Wednesday morning, they introduced an amended resolution outlining seven alleged offenses. They include accusations that Krasner has fueled the city’s surge in murders and homicides, obstructed a legislative committee investigating his office, and mishandled specific criminal cases, including the now-dismissed murder prosecution of former Philadelphia police officer Ryan Pownall, who fatally shot a man who was running from a traffic stop in 2017.
Krasner said in a statement after the vote that House Republicans did not present “a shred of evidence” tying his office’s policies to an uptick in crime and said: “History will harshly judge this anti-democratic authoritarian effort to erase Philly’s votes.”
Impeachment requires approval by a simple majority in the House, where Republicans hold a 23-seat advantage. Of the lawmakers present Wednesday, all but one GOP member voted for impeachment, while every Democrat opposed it.
With impeachment approved, a trial is to take place in the Senate, where Republicans hold 28 of 50 seats. Removal would require a two-thirds vote in the upper chamber, and the GOP majority is set to decrease by one seat beginning in 2023.
Many questions remained Wednesday about how or when that trial might happen. The Senate has already wrapped up its scheduled session days for the year. And although Republican State Sen. Kim Ward — recently named interim Senate president pro tempore — said Tuesday that the chamber would add days to take up the matter, she did not say when that would happen or what the days would be used for.
Legislative Republicans said Wednesday that some administrative tasks related to the trial would begin this month, but none was certain if the trial itself would start before the end of the legislative session on Nov. 30 or in 2023.
The practical effects of impeachment for Krasner also remained uncertain in the near-term. There are several steps remaining between Wednesday’s vote and the potential for him to be removed from office, and many of those steps are likely to be challenged in court.
Some legal experts have questioned whether the articles of impeachment contain actions or conduct that meet the legal standard for targeting Krasner at all. Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne University professor of state and federal constitutional law, has said: “There is very little likelihood here that there’s a legally sufficient basis for impeachment and removal,” and he has noted that Pennsylvania courts have the power to take action if that standard is not met.
‘Enough is enough’ vs. ‘so-called impeachment’
Still, those issues went largely unmentioned during Wednesday’s proceedings, as lawmakers spent several hours debating impeachment in impassioned speeches.
House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) criticized the performance of Krasner’s office, saying it was not legal for Krasner to enact policies seeking to decriminalize or deemphasize crimes like petty theft, drug possession, and prostitution.
“We don’t get to ignore laws,” Cutler said. “If we want to change them, we should amend and legislate them differently, not allow one rogue county … to go off the rails and jeopardize the citizens who live there.”
Rep. Kerry Benninghoff (R., Centre), the majority leader, said the party was standing up for “those who do not have a voice,” whether they live in Philadelphia or not. “It is saddening and it doesn’t matter what the geography is. It should upset all Pennsylvanians,” he said. “And that’s what this resolution is about. It says enough is enough.”
Krasner has denied allegations that his policies are behind the city’s violence spike, saying the District Attorney’s Office diverts some low-level offenders out of the criminal justice system but is committed to prosecuting violence.
He’s also defended his office’s response to the legislative investigation. And he has cast the impeachment drive as an illegal stunt to target a political opponent over ideological disagreements. It came a year after he was overwhelmingly reelected, and even after a separate House committee tasked with investigating Krasner’s office this year has continued its work and not recommended impeachment.
Krasner’s Democratic counterparts in the Capitol criticized Republicans for advancing the controversial measure on the final day of the legislative session, and with the GOP appearing to have lostits majority in the state House for the first time in more than a decade.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta (D., Philadelphia) said during floor debate that impeaching Krasner would set a dangerous precedent, and brought up initiatives that he said his Republican counterparts have rejected, including gun-safety measures, and asked whether that also amounts to misbehavior in office.
“What is done here today has been called many names: a sham, a political stunt, a distraction, and disgrace. But what I call it today, Mr. Speaker, is simply sad,” Kenyatta said, later adding: “This building has a lot of power. Why aren’t we using that power to actually fix what is broken?”
Rep. Joanna McClinton of Philadelphia, the Democratic minority leader, said the GOP was attempting to overturn the will of city voters, a move she compared to past Republican-led attempts to question the results of elections.
“Unfortunately, when you do not like what occurred in the outcome of an election, there has been a decision in the grand ol’ party to subvert the will of the voters,” McClinton said. “And we see that here today with this so-called impeachment.”
Philly DA Larry Krasner could be impeached. Here’s what you should know.
A rare occurrence
The resolution to impeach Krasner was introduced by Rep. Martina White, a Northeast Philadelphia Republican who said Krasner’s office has “inappropriately” used prosecutorial discretion and failed to keep residents safe as shootings and homicides have soared.
Benninghoff and his GOP colleagues have also accused Krasner of seeking to obstruct a separate legislative probe of his office.
Krasner has denied that, saying he appropriately challenged that investigation’s validity in Commonwealth Court.
And Krasner has vehemently defended his office’s record on prosecuting violence, while pointing out that gun crime has been on the rise nationally, including in some Pennsylvania jurisdictions with prosecutors who are Republicans, who are perceived as tough-on-crime, or both. He has accused GOP lawmakers of improperly targeting him while failing to take action on proposed gun safety bills that some believe could help stem the flow of guns into Philadelphia.
The House’s action Wednesday was an exceptionally rare event. The last person to be impeached and ultimately removed was Rolf Larsen, a onetime state Supreme Court justice, who in 1994 was ousted for making legal decisions based on improper conversations with a political supporter.
The only other examples of impeachments that led to removals occurred more than 200 years ago, according to a memo prepared several years ago by a House Democratic lawyer. In 1803, Alexander Addison, a judge, was removed for improperly interfering with a grand jury. And in 1811, another judge, Thomas Cooper, was found to have committed an array of misdeeds, including fining and imprisoning people who wore hats to court, the memo said.
Wednesday’s vote featured one Republican who voted no: Rep. Michael J. Puskaric, of Allegheny County. Attempts to reach him for comment were not successful.
The proceedings came at a time of deep uncertainty over the balance of power in the state House. Democrats on Wednesday appeared to have won a razor-thin majority of seats in the state House for the first time in 12 years, but control is precarious and could create a stalemate when the newly elected House members are seated in January.
Benninghoff rejected criticism that Republicans were pursuing an impeachment drive during a lame-duck session that may represent their last grip on power for at least two years.
“We get criticized when we do things too fast, we get criticized when we do things too slow,” he said. “We realize that we are legislators and we get paid through the month and we are here to do our job.”
Staff writer Craig R. McCoy contributed to this article.
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