Krasner’s DAO

Explainer: What would it take for Harrisburg to impeach Larry Krasner?

The Philly DA is under fire from state legislators, who blame his policies for the city’s gun violence crisis — and they’re likely to work through the summer.

Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner speaks at City Hall in April 2021

Philadelphia DA Larry Krasner speaks at City Hall in April 2021

Emma Lee / WHYY

Harrisburg Republicans are going after Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney, and the effort is likely to intensify this summer.

The whole thing started in mid-June, when three GOP representatives circulated a memo calling out DA Larry Krasner by name, blaming his policies for the city’s continuing gun violence crisis, and vowing to oust him from his position. None of the reps are from anywhere near Philly.

The situation escalated at the end of June when the Pa. House voted to establish a five-person panel. Ostensibly set up to investigate gun violence in Philadelphia, the panel has the power to recommend impeachment, with Krasner as its clear focus.

Right after the panel was established, budget negotiations became all-consuming as the fiscal year deadline loomed. With that done, impeachment efforts are expected to move forward, said Mustafa Rashed, a political consultant who works in the state capital.

Krasner’s office has so far called the move a “political stunt,” and his office noted it was introduced in the middle of Congress’ Jan. 6 hearings, which have implicated several Pennsylvania Republicans. But some Democrats in the state legislature are also supporting the measure.

Democratic Pa. Reps. Joe Hohenstein, Ed Neilson, Kevin Boyle — who all represent parts of Philadelphia — voted “yes” to establish the investigatory impeachment panel.

“It’s a sad day that we have to do this,” Neilson told the Capital-Star, “but it’s a good day for my neighbors, some of whom have fallen because of no fault of their own.”

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Most other Philly Democrats have called the effort a sham that would invalidate the will of city voters and not actually help reduce gun violence. “Perhaps the problem is you don’t like who the people of Philadelphia have elected,” Rep. Chris Rabb said on the House floor during the vote.

Philly’s sole Republican in the legislature, Rep. Martina White, encouraged “anyone who knows someone who has been wronged by the district attorney’s office to share their story” with the House GOP Caucus.

Impeachment is the only way to force an official out of office who hasn’t been convicted of a crime, as recall elections aren’t permitted in the Commonwealth. History shows it’s unlikely the Krasner impeachment effort will be successful. But legally, the General Assembly does have the power to remove local officials from their posts.

Here’s how it all could go down, and what might happen next.

What’s needed to start an impeachment process? Can anyone initiate it?

Pennsylvania law says the House of Representatives has “sole power of impeachment” in the state. To start the process, state reps just need a simple majority to vote for a bill establishing an investigatory committee. That’s what happened in late June.

What about jurisdiction? State law notes that impeachment power applies to the governor “and all other civil officers.” That is commonly interpreted as including officials elected in any municipality in the state.

On cause, Pa. code defines impeachable offenses as “any misbehavior in office,” which is vague enough to cover anything from criminal charges to discontent with how an official approaches their job.

In Krasner’s case, those who voted to begin the process believe that he simply hasn’t done the job of a district attorney.

Once initiated, how does impeachment work? What’s needed for conviction?

Once a bill establishes an investigatory committee — in this case, its title is the Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order — the house speaker appoints a working group. The subpoena-powered panel must include three members of the majority caucus and two members of the minority, meaning three Republicans and two Democrats will investigate Krasner.

If the committee decides its findings are worthy of the effort, its members draft articles of impeachment. Those then go to the floor for a full House vote. If passed, then the Senate holds a trial. A two-thirds majority is needed to impeach the official.’

When does the committee’s work begin, and what does that mean for Philadelphians?

Representatives to sit on the panel investigating crime in Philly haven’t been selected yet, but we’ll likely know who the house speaker chooses within weeks if not sooner. Once the committee is set, they’ll work through the summer break, according to Rashed, the political consultant, who is president and CEO Bellevue Strategies.

“Committee meetings can and do happen all over the summer,” Rashed told Billy Penn. “I would expect that the committee’s work would continue over the summer regardless of the schedule of House days in session.”

Collecting testimony is one of the first things the committee will do, he said. In fact, House Republicans have already set up an online form seeking submissions. “Are you a victim of crime in Philadelphia?,” it asks. “Do you feel safe in the city? Have District Attorney Larry Krasner’s policies failed to keep you and your loved ones safe?”

With this approach, the committee is likely to receive comments that support its premise, Rashed noted.

“If you’re saying, ‘Hey, we’re setting up a commission to impeach someone, and we’re going to do fact-finding,”‘ he observed, “it almost pre-guarantees the outcome that you’re going to keep looking for until you find what you’re looking for.”

What happens after someone is impeached?

An impeached official cannot hold appointed or elected office in Pennsylvania, so it effectively ends their career in public office.

How an impeached official is replaced differs based on their position, and the appropriate state or municipal law.

What about recall elections, why doesn’t Pa. have them?

Philly’s Home Rule Charter, established in 1951, originally included rules for a recall. It said that if residents get enough signatures of registered voters — 25% of the number of voters in the last mayoral election — then a special election could move forward.

Those rules differ from the recall procedure for a city like San Francisco, which requires petitioners to get 10 percent of voters to sign for the recall of a citywide elected official. But the comparison is trivial, because Pennsylvania doesn’t allow recall elections. Why?

In the ’70s, Philly residents organized an effort to recall Mayor Frank Rizzo. They collected 210,000 signatures, over 60,000 more than was necessary, but city commissioners invalidated over 120,000 of them due to imprecise signatures and other “irregularities.”

Anti-Rizzo residents sued, and a Court of Common Pleas judge agreed the petition was valid. But the state Supreme Court reversed that ruling, agreeing with the commissioners’ judgment and stating that the recall process “as provided for in the Philadelphia Home Rule Charter, is violative of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

Relying on the same portion of the law that addressed “misbehavior in office,” the court ruled that there needs to be “sufficient cause established by due process” to remove officials. Philly’s recall process was “premised on something less” than that standard in the eyes of the court — and it was deemed unconstitutional.

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner celebrates his reelection in May 2021 with supporters at his victory party

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner celebrates his reelection in May 2021 with supporters at his victory party

Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Is impeachment common in the Commonwealth?

Impeachment is quite rare in the Keystone State. Only two officials have ever been impeached in the Commonwealth’s history.

State Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen was impeached in 1994. Before that, you have to go back to the 1811 removal of Thomas Cooper, a district judge.

In Larsen’s case, he’d asked his doctor to prescribe his anti-anxiety and depression medications for other court employees to hide his mental health issues. In an elaborate own goal, this was discovered in a grand jury investigation that stemmed from Larsen sparring with other justices over allegations of, you guessed it, their misbehavior.

Larsen was charged for the prescription misdirection and sentenced to one year of probation. As he appealed the decision, he was impeached and convicted by the state Senate in October 1994.

As for Cooper, an outspoken antifederalist imprisoned under the Sedition Act during President John Adams’s administration, his downfall was tied to a shift to the federalist side of the aisle once he became a judge.

Also, in a clairvoyant moment, Cooper wrote in 1835 that the country was so polarized that a “line of division will, before a dozen years are over, be drawn at the Potomac.”

So is Krasner likely to be impeached? What would happen if he was?

Krasner’s prosecutorial discretion is under scrutiny, meaning the liberty that prosecutors have to increase, decrease, or eliminate charges for certain acts. There’s reason to believe the House committee will declare his views out of line with his job description — that’s been a primary anti-Krasner argument since he became the DA.

It’s likely that the Philly DAO’s policy to decline certain charges and its bail policy will be referenced in the committee’s report.

Findings in city reports suggest that gun violence isn’t a problem that begins and ends at the District Attorney’s Office.

The 100 Shooting Review report recently released by Philadelphia City Council noted that while arrests for illegal gun possession and recovering guns from crime scenes have risen, “shooting arrest rates remain low, conviction rates in illegal gun possession cases have been declining since 2015, and conviction rates in shooting cases declined between 2015 and 2019 and increased modestly in 2020 and 2021.” Krasner was first sworn in 2018.

On the political side, it’s clear nearly all of the state Republicans and a considerable number of state Democrats simply aren’t fans of Krasner’s policies and methods.

Assuming full GOP support, and Sen. John Yudichak’s vote — he’s the Senate’s sole Independent, from Plymouth County — it would take five Democratic state senators crossing the aisle for Krasner to be impeached.

If Krasner was removed, like any district attorney vacancy, “the judges of the court of common pleas shall supply [i.e. substitute] such vacancy, by the appointment of a competent person to fill the office until the next general election,” according to state law.

That process has taken place in recent memory, as former DA Seth William’s removal under indictment called for a replacement. Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas judges have a tradition of carrying out this election by picking names out of an old top hat, for unconfirmed reasons.