House Dem Dermody was there for Pa. judge’s impeachment in 1994. It has lessons for today | Thursday Morning Coffee

December 12, 2019 7:34 am

Good Thursday Morning, Fellow Seekers.

In 1994, state Rep. Frank Dermody was a backbench Democrat serving his second term in that rarest of all things: A Democratic majority in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. That year, the House undertook a task it hadn’t undertaken in a century: The impeachment of a sitting member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

In 1992, Justice Rolf Larsen was accused by then Justice Robert C. Nix Jr., with whom he had an ongoing feud, of improperly communicating with a trial judge about a case. It was the beginning of a slide that included Larsen being found guilty two years later, of criminal conspiracy connected to illegal prescription drugs, and his eventual impeachment by the state House, conviction by the state Senate, and removal from office in October 1994. Larsen died in 2014 at the age of 79.

The Capital-Star chatted with Dermody, D-Allegheny, now Democratic leader in the state House, about his experience as a House manager of the Larsen impeachment, and the lessons it holds for Congressional Democrats as they move ahead with the likely approval of impeachment articles against President Donald Trump.

The interview below has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

The late Pa. Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen, who was impeached in 1994

Q: You’re among the handful of lawmakers in Harrisburg who can trace their careers back to the mid-1990s. What was it like being part of the Larsen impeachment? What impressions did it make on you?

Dermody: “Having gone through it – we took it very, very seriously. He was a justice of the Supreme Court. People were complaining of very serious issues. There was talk of him fixing cases and intimidating Court of Common Pleas judges and acting erratically and attacking other members of the court. Things were in disarray.

“We were in the majority. I was chairman [of the House Judiciary Committee’s] Subcommittee on Courts.  There was a petition that was referred to the Judiciary Committee, which was referred to the subcommittee. It was serious enough to do an investigation into what some of the concerns were.

“There was a floor vote to grant us subpoena power and there was an investigation. It was a serious matter. It was months. It felt like it took almost a year. My whole summer was dedicated to doing this. We traveled the state. We had hearing after hearing, interviewing witnesses … It was an extensive investigation. We hadn’t had an impeachment in more than 150 years. There was one in the late 1700s and one in the 1800s. It was the precedent we had to to use. I read the Federalist Papers to see what Hamilton and Madison were talking about on impeachment.”

(House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, at the podium Facebook)

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ meaning whatever Congress says it means. Did you find yourself in a similar situation with Larsen?

Dermody: “There’s no definition – their language is “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Ours calls it “high crimes and misdemeanors and misbehavior in office.”

“We did seven articles …  The main one was that we could clearly show that he gave preference to certain lawyers to getting their cases before the Supreme Court.

“And that was the count [for which he was] convicted. I was just out of the DA’s office, and public defender’s office in Allegheny County. There hadn’t been a trial since the early 1800s in the Pennsylvania Senate. The Senate trial went on for two weeks. They appointed a committee of senators to take evidence. That report was drafted and closing arguments were before the full Senate. I was chairman for the committee of managers [for the House].”

WASHINGTON, DC – OCTOBER 02: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Oval Office of the White House on October 02, 2019 in Washington, DC. The two leaders will reportedly discuss 5G wireless technology and European and Arctic security during bilateral meetings and later hold a joint news conference in the East Room. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Q: You said your investigation lasted for months. The process in Congress has happened with comparable speed. Do you think they’re going too fast?

Dermody: “It seems speedy. The evidence they were able to gather came a little easier than what we had to do. They’ve been able to move quickly. They’ve been able to develop evidence from witnesses.

“[Still,] it’s hard to say – if they are able to get the information they need from the witnesses available. They’re doing their job. They have the transcript of the [Ukraine] call; the information from the whistleblower and the witnesses who corroborated that testimony. It seems like sufficient time to do it. If you believe, when you read the Federalist papers, when they wrote about impeachment, they were definitely concerned about foreign powers intervening in the election.”

WASHINGTON, DC – DECEMBER 4: Rep. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-PA) speaks during testimony by constitutional scholars before the House Judiciary Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill December 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. This is the first hearing held by the Judiciary Committee in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump, whom House Democrats say held back military aid for Ukraine while demanding it investigate his political rivals. The Judiciary Committee will decide whether to draft official articles of impeachment against President Trump to be voted on by the full House of Representatives. (Photo by Saul Loeb-Pool/Getty Images)

Q: In the end, is this a legal process? A political process? Both?

Dermody: “To a large extent, it’s a political process. We decide what misbehavior in office is. [Congress] decides what high crimes and misdemeanors is. If you’re reading the Federalist papers, there are the concerns about foreign powers being involved in our elections.

“For us, if you’re a Supreme Court justice, you should not be intervening unfairly for one party or another. This was directly related to [Larsen’s] job and being a fair and impartial justice of the Supreme Court. He was removed. He would not resign.

“You have to be really careful. We laid out the precedent that people will follow. I hope we never have reason to do it ever again. Both sides of the aisle worked together on [it] — when you see the unanimous House vote on subpoena power and the close to unanimous [vote] on the seven articles that went over to the Senate for trial.”

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John L. Micek

A three-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's former Editor-in-Chief.