The Lead

Pa. House holds Philly DA Krasner in contempt for refusing to respond to select committee subpoena

By: - September 13, 2022 5:19 pm

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner (Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council/City & State Pa.)

(*This story was updated at 5:15 p.m. Tuesday, 9/13/22, to include a House vote on the contempt resolution.)

The Pennsylvania House voted Tuesday to hold Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner in contempt for refusing to respond to a subpoena issued by the select committee investigating Krasner’s approach to prosecuting crime. 

The 162-38 vote to hold the Democratic prosecutor in contempt of the Republican-controlled chamber came just  hours after the Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order voted unanimously to recommend the measure. 

The action by the GOP-led panel, which is searching for evidence to impeach Krasner, prompted objections from Democrats who said it flouted House rules intended to ensure transparency in government.

“The public deserves the opportunity to communicate with all of their elected representatives on all matters that come before the house,” House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, said, arguing a vote should be delayed until Sept. 20 at the earliest to comply with the requirement that bills be considered on three separate days.

McClinton also argued that advancing a contempt resolution was outside the powers of the House Rules Committee, which sent the measure to the full House early Tuesday afternoon. 

Rep. John Lawrence, R-Chester, the select committee’s chairperson, said there is precedent for the move in a 1974 case in which a contempt resolution was forwarded by the Rules Committee and voted on the same day.

“Frankly, it’s not something that comes before the house very often. Frankly, I wish it were not before the House today to be candid with you,” Lawrence said. “But  … there have been times in the past where an individual has been held to account for their refusal to answer questions, or respond to a subpoena duly issued by this chamber.”

A motion to table the bill failed on  a 117-83 vote.

Duquesne University law professor Bruce Ledewitz, also a Capital-Star opinion contributor, said there is precedent supporting the House’s power to jail those found in contempt, although such an attempt would be subject to a challenge in court. 

In that 1974 case, the state Supreme Court denied a state police officer’s challenge to a warrant for his commitment to the House sergeant-at-arms after he refused to appear at the bar of the House to answer questions in a committee investigation. The court noted in the same case that the correct method to challenge the validity of a House committee’s investigation would be to seek judicial review.

Impeachment is rare in Pennsylvania. It was last used to remove state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen from office in 1994 after he was sentenced to probation for fraudulently seeking prescription pain medication. 

Impeaching Krasner would require a majority vote in the House, after which the state Senate would hold a trial in which a two-thirds majority vote would be needed to convict.

Lawmakers voted in July to convene the House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order after Reps. Toren Ecker, R-Adams, and Josh Kail, R-Beaver, called for Krasner’s impeachment in the wake of a mass shooting in Philadelphia’s South Street entertainment district. 

Krasner, who was reelected in 2021 after campaigning on a platform of ending mass incarceration, cash bail and selective prosecution of low-level crimes, has been a target of conservative lawmakers who blame him for surging gun violence in Philadelphia.

Lawrence said that while Krasner’s policies and preferences in prosecuting crime are of interest to himself and other lawmakers, the question before the house was whether the subpoena was valid or “a worthless piece of paper,” as he asserted Krasner had treated it.

“Regrettably, the gentleman has willfully neglected or refused to comply with a duly issued subpoena after four separate communications,” Lawrence said on the House floor, urging an affirmative vote on the resolution.

Lawrence countered arguments by Democrats that any vote should be delayed until Commonwealth Court rules in a lawsuit Krasner filed last week seeking an order declaring the subpoena invalid, saying Krasner should have responded even if that meant withholding documents he contends are privileged.

The suit contends, among other things, that complying with the subpoena would violate grand jury secrecy laws because it demands the case file of a pending murder case against city police officer accused of shooting an unarmed Black man in the back.

Ecker, one of five representatives appointed to the select committee, said the unanimous vote to recommend holding Krasner in contempt came after he twice declined to accept hand-delivered subpoenas from the committee. 

Ecker said Krasner’s lawyers accepted electronic delivery but Krasner responded by filing the lawsuit. On the same day, the select committee asked in a filing why Krasner should not be held in contempt.

“This is not a decision we, as a committee, came to lightly,” Ecker said. “This committee is steadfast in its intention to get to the bottom of the current unrest in Philadelphia and being denied access to important documents hinders progress in achieving that goal.”

Before the House Rules Committee voted Tuesday morning to send the contempt resolution to the full House, McClinton noted the resolution was provided to committee members less than an hour before the vote. That prevented Democratic members from proposing amendments, McClinton said.

McClinton said law and order is especially important to members of the Philadelphia delegation, where the number of shooting deaths this year is approaching 400. That includes the nephew of a member of her staff, who was shot outside his home on Sunday night as he returned from work.

“It is the most concerning thing for every member of our caucus, but especially the members like myself, who serve our neighbors in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection. It keeps us up at night and is the first thing we think about every single day of the week,” McClinton said.

McClinton asked why the House has taken no action to curb the proliferation of guns and refuses to allow Philadelphia to pass its own regulations. 

Jessica Brand, a spokesperson for Krasner’s campaign, said the select committee is operating outside the law. 

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has said that when a party receives a subpoena that it believes is improper – as we do – you should seek review in court. That is exactly what we have done. It is telling that the ‘Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order’ refuses to follow it,” Brand said in a statement.

In response to a filing by the select committee, Lawyers for Krasner said it’s improper for the House to pursue contempt charges before Commonwealth Court has ruled on the validity of the subpoena.

“In the end, if the Select Committee believes that its subpoena is lawful and proper, it should have the courage to present its arguments in court and on the record. That the Select Committee would pursue contempt proceedings before it has addressed the Commonwealth Court proceeding and before that Court has ruled violates its obligation to comply with due process,” Krasner’s lawyers said.

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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.