What does the impeachment process look like in Pennsylvania?

‘It is a very serious proceeding because this imposes on the time and the resources of the entire legislative branch,’ attorney William Costopoulos said

By: and - November 2, 2022 2:09 pm
The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. May 24, 2022. Harrisburg, Pa. (Photo by Amanda Berg, for the Capital-Star).

The ceiling of the main Rotunda inside Pennsylvania’s Capitol building. (Photo by Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star).

Pennsylvania House Republicans last month introduced two articles of impeachment against Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a Democrat who overwhelmingly won reelection last year, that tie his policies to a rise in crime in the state’s largest city.

The articles, sponsored by Rep. Martina White, R-Philadelphia, accuse Krasner of “misbehavior in office” and come months after the House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order was formed to investigate and review rising crime rates in Philadelphia. The impeachment measure also accuses Krasner of obstructing the committee’s work.

Impeachment is rare in Pennsylvania. The most recent occurred in 1994, with the House voting to impeach and the Senate convicting Rolf Larsen, a former Supreme Court justice, for improperly discussing court matters.

Introducing articles of impeachment is just a first step in the seldom-used process.

Here’s a look at the impeachment process and where it stands now:

What does the impeachment process entail?

The impeachment process is outlined in the Pennsylvania Constitution and governed by the rules of the House and Senate.

White, the only Republican representing Philadelphia, introduced the articles alongside a group of House Republicans during a press conference last week. 

The resolution detailing the basis for the charges was referred to the House Judiciary Committee, which must deliberate and vote on whether to send the measure to the full House for consideration.

The House would then hold a debate and floor vote on the resolution, requiring a simple majority to send the articles to the full Senate for a vote.

Because White introduced the articles as a resolution, the House only needs to vote once, unlike a bill, which is considered on three separate occasions, Mike Straub, a spokesperson for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said.

White introduced the impeachment measure with only three scheduled sessions days left before the two-year legislative term expires before the end of the year. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said that Cutler’s office is willing to add session days if needed.

House rules require the resolution to be posted for a vote with a day for review before a vote is called, Straub said. For that reason, if the Judiciary Committee votes to advance the resolution and it is posted for a vote on Nov. 14, the earliest the House could vote is Nov. 16, the last regularly scheduled session day. 

The charges must pass through both chambers. The Senate conducts a trial that could last for weeks before its 50 members vote on a conviction.

Attorney William Costopoulos, of Harrisburg, represented Larsen during his 1994 impeachment trial, the only successful one since the 1800s. 

Larsen was previously criminally convicted of conspiracy to fraudulently obtain prescription medication. The Senate acquitted Larsen of that accusation but convicted him of having inappropriate conversations with an attorney who had cases before the court.

Costopoulos said that although the proceeding in the Senate is called a trial, it bears only a superficial resemblance to a trial in court.

The speaker of the House selects a panel of representatives to present the case against the person facing impeachment. In Larsen’s case, it was five representatives, with three Democrats, who were in the majority, and two Republicans, according to Jeff Piccola, a former state representative who served on the House panel that prosecuted Larsen.

Members of the House panel act as prosecutors would during a criminal trial, taking turns to cross-examine witnesses.

In addition, the Senate selects a panel of senators to hear the evidence, similar to a jury.

The accused has a right to counsel of their choosing, to receive discovery, to call witnesses, and to due process and fundamental fairness. The accused may also choose to testify but is not required to do so.

Unlike a criminal trial, the rules of evidence — which govern what kinds of testimony are heard and how attorneys question witnesses — are not strictly followed, Costopoulos said. Evidence such as hearsay or leading questions that would be prohibited in a criminal trial may be allowed in an impeachment trial.

The burden of proof is also lower than in a criminal trial. An impeachment panel must prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence by showing it is more likely than not that the accusations are true.

 In a criminal case, a prosecutor must prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt — to a degree that a reasonable person would have no doubt — about the accused person’s guilt.

Once the House panel has completed presenting evidence to the Senate panel, a House lawmaker is selected to make a closing statement to the full Senate. 

The Senate then caucuses to deliberate and return a verdict.

“It is a very serious proceeding because this imposes on the time and the resources of the entire legislative branch,” Costopoulos said.

Erica Clayton Wright, a spokesperson for Senate Republicans, told the Capital-Star that the Senate’s role in the impeachment process is to “hear the evidence presented by the House of Representatives if articles of impeachment are approved” and declined to comment further.

Former state Rep. Frank Dermody, who chaired the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on courts during the Larsen impeachment, said in 2016 that the 1994 process cost about $1.5 million. Today, that would amount to roughly $3 million when adjusted for inflation using U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The case against Krasner is far more subjective than that against Larsen, who had been criminally convicted and was the subject of complaints lodged with the state Judicial Conduct and Inquiry Board. 

“They are proceeding at this early stage targeting the exercise of his prosecutorial discretion versus any alleged criminal acts,” Costopoulos said. “It’s going to be a very tough burden to meet, questioning an elected district attorney’s prosecutorial discretion.”

Piccola agreed, saying that while he disapproves of Krasner’s policies, it’s difficult to draw a line beyond which prosecutorial discretion amounts to misbehavior in office and could set an undesirable precedent.

“Every DA who plea bargains a case down does the same thing,” Piccola said, adding that the decision whether Krasner should remain in office was before Philadelphia voters in the last election.

What has Krasner said about his possible impeachment and the House committee?

Before House Republicans unveiled the impeachment articles, Krasner held a press conference at the Capitol, saying he wouldn’t be surprised if the process began before Election Day on Nov. 8.

“There is no integrity to this process,” Krasner said. “If there was, then I would join them and help them every step of the way. They would look at the entire state, and they would look at some real solutions and some things that can be done to make it better.”

In September, the House voted 162-38 to hold Krasner in contempt for refusing to respond to a subpoena issued by the GOP-controlled committee.

Krasner agreed to testify before the committee. But there were conditions from the panel, including that the meeting would occur behind closed doors without a public live stream or audio recordings. While the committee would have a copy of the testimony, Krasner said he could not make a copy.

Krasner said the committee has no legal grounds for impeachment. Instead, he accused the committee of targeting him for his ideas and policies during a “super-heated election cycle” and attempting to blame large and diverse cities as being “lawless.”

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Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.

Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.