Former Pa. Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who ‘cared about justice above partisanship,’ dies at age 81

Former Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, (second from right) at Swearing-in Day in Harrisburg, January 2011. Photo courtesy of Sen. Lisa Baker's office.

Former state Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, who helped create and later reverse some of Pennsylvania’s harshest sentencing laws during a 40-year career in the state Legislature, died suddenly on Tuesday, his law firm announced. He was 81.

The Wednesday memo from the Montgomery County-based law firm did not disclose a cause of death for Greenleaf, who was the longest-serving Republican member of the state Senate when he retired at the end of 2018. 

Senate Republican leaders hailed him as “the father of civil justice reform” on Wednesday evening. Former colleagues also remembered him of a rarity in elected politics: a lawmaker who would change his mind in the face of evidence, and who wasn’t afraid to disavow formerly held stances. 

“He cared about justice above partisanship and was a workhorse to achieve it,” former aide Patrick Cawley said on Twitter, in one of the first public announcements of Greenleaf’s death. 

“Senator Greenleaf had the vision to understand that our criminal justice system is broken – while admitting that he participated in breaking it, a rare quality in a politician,” Andy Hoover, communications director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, tweeted. “And he had the standing … to do something about fixing it.”

A native of Upper Moreland Township in Montgomery County, Greenleaf spent years as a county prosecutor before being elected to a state House seat. He ran for the Senate two years later, in 1978, promising to crack down on violent crime and drugs. 

“I was tough on crime,” he told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2018. “We were trained in the law that that’s what worked: Tough on crime would make our streets safe and our community safe, and so I induced bills to do that.”

He delivered on those campaign promises as he started his 40-year career in the Senate, which included a long stint as chair of the Judiciary Committee.

He advanced laws creating mandatory sentences and legalizing lethal injection in executions. But in the early 2000s, he started to reverse course.

He told the Philadelphia Inquirer that the state had little to show for its tough-on-crime policies other than a growing prison population and a bloated corrections budget. 

He also said his faith in the criminal justice system was shaken by wrongful convictions that came to light thanks to improved DNA testing – the result of a 2002 law he authored that made it easier for death row inmates to get their cases reexamined with new DNA evidence.

“It is counterintuitive,” he said in 2018. “You’d think tough on crime is the way to go and you’d have lower crime rates, but it didn’t happen.”

After Pennsylvania’s mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were overturned by the courts in 2015, Greenleaf used his post on the Senate Judiciary Committee to block bills reinstating them.

He wrote the law that banning life sentences for juveniles charged with felony murder. He also created a committee that published a report on the state’s use of capital punishment, which led Gov. Tom Wolf to issue a moratorium on the death penalty. 

“No one was more persistent in pushing for reform of laws and policies that time and technology had rendered ineffective or outdated,” Sen. Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, who succeeded Greenleaf as Judiciary Committee chair in 2019, said in a Wednesday statement.

Greenleaf supported his son, Stewart Greenleaf Jr., when he ran to succeed his father in the state’s 12th Senate district in 2018. He was defeated by Democratic Sen. Maria Collett, who on Wednesday called her predecessor “a man of great faith and integrity.”

“Senator Greenleaf’s character and leadership were admired by colleagues and constituents across the political spectrum,” Collett said in a public statement. “By setting such an example, his legacy and impact on the people of Pennsylvania will live on forever.”