Pa. House Republicans poised to send Philly DA Krasner’s impeachment to state Senate

‘You’ve got a district attorney who is choosing not to protect the people who put him in office, so somebody’s got to step up,’ House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff said

By: - November 15, 2022 3:37 pm
Outgoing Pa. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghfoff, R-Centre (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall).

Outgoing Pa. House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghfoff, R-Centre (Capital-Star photo by Peter Hall).

The Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines on Tuesday to send articles of impeachment against Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner to the floor of the Republican-led chamber.

A vote on whether to send the articles to the state Senate is expected to happen Wednesday, on the last scheduled day of the session and just over a week after the election that could transfer control of the House to Democrats next year.

Judiciary Committee Chairperson Rob Kauffman, R-Franklin, said that although the General Assembly’s 2021-22 session ends this month, the Senate would be able to hold a trial on the charges in its next session. Citing rising crime and a drop in conviction rates, the articles allege Krasner committed misconduct in office and obstructed an investigation. 

Republican lawmakers who object to Krasner’s progressive positions on criminal justice, and blame them for a rise in violence and homicides, according to the Philadelphia controller’s office, have been calling for his ouster since this spring

Democratic lawmakers have largely resisted attempts to remove Krasner, pointing to his support from voters, and arguing that rising crime rates are a result of failed social safety nets and poor gun control.

House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, said he’s hopeful for a bipartisan vote to forward the articles, noting that about 50 Democrats voted in favor of holding Krasner in contempt of the House for refusing to cooperate with its investigation.

“At the end of the day, crime is not a partisan issue,” Benninghoff said. “Fixing it should not be partisan either, but you’ve got a district attorney who is choosing not to protect the people who put him in office, so somebody’s got to step up.”

Krasner’s office criticized Republican lawmakers for using their final days in office as “lame duck legislators” for a “Hail Mary effort” to remove him from office. It said voters made their intent clear by re-electing Krasner last year and by rejecting Republican “fear-mongering” on crime in last week’s election.

“Pennsylvania House Republicans are proving yet again that they have no desire to govern responsibly — even as Pennsylvanians sent a strong message that there are consequences for their war on democracy and their failure to deliver on positive changes to the communities they are supposed to represent,” Krasner’s office said in a statement.

Elizabeth Randol, the legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, said in a statement the impeachment effort was anti-democratic on its own.

“But when you consider that those leading this effort rushed to hold a vote even as the balance of power remains undecided in the state House is remarkably cynical,” Randol said.

Control of the House will be determined by the outcome of a pair of legislative district races in Bucks and Montgomery counties that remain too close to call. Vote counting will not be complete until Friday, the earliest 

Kauffman said there is no precedent for articles of impeachment to be carried over from one General Assembly session to the next in Pennsylvania. Republican leaders believe the impeachment of former President Bill Clinton in the U.S. Senate provides a precedent.

The U.S. House of Representatives impeached Clinton in December 1998, charging him with perjury and obstruction of justice, and the Senate held a trial, in which Clinton was acquitted, that started the following month in Congress’ subsequent session.

The articles, charging Krasner were introduced Oct. 28 by state Rep. Martina White, the only Republican state lawmaker to represent Philadelphia, despite an interim report by the House Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order that said it would continue its investigation and recommend whether impeachment is appropriate before the end of the session.

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. 

White on Tuesday outlined data showing rising crime, increases in crimes not prosecuted and decreases in conviction rates, which she said pointed to an imperative to remove Krasner from office.

“Living in Philadelphia, this is deeply personal issue for me,” White said. “I get messages nearly daily from victims and residents who are tired of the crime and pleading for help.”

White listed crimes over the last month including college students held up in their dormitory, a priest carjacked as he unloaded a wheelchair, four high school students wounded and one killed in a shooting after a football scrimmage, and three police officers shot.

“The Legislature has a duty and the authority to act when a public official refuses to perform their duties and is putting the public in danger,” White said.

Krasner’s office countered, saying in a statement that it has an 87 percent conviction rate for all homicides and 83 percent for fatal shootings, noting that police make arrests in only 30 percent of fatal shootings and 20 percent in non-fatal shootings.

The office declines to prosecute or reduces charges only when new information becomes available that wasn’t known by police or prosecutors at the time of arrest.

And responding to White’s statement that the office loses or withdraws more cases at the preliminary hearing stage than in trials, Krasner’s office said judges have cleared for trial 96 percent of homicide and 99 percent of non-fatal shooting cases opened during Krasner’s time in office.

Krasner’s office also said the pandemic created an unprecedented backlog of cases that creates a distorted picture of how policing and criminal courts have changed.

“Put simply, cases that are withdrawn or dismissed resolve more quickly than those that go to trial, so the backlog of serious cases impacts conviction rates,” Krasner’s office said. 

Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia, said the blame for crime in Philadelphia is misplaced on Krasner and asserted the General Assembly has not fulfilled its duty to ensure the safety of all Pennsylvania residents.

“If that is the case, we’re going to hold District Attorney Larry Krasner accountable, we should probably add some more names to these articles of impeachment because there’s a dereliction of duty amongst all of us,” Dawkins said.

Dawkins and other Democrats noted that the General Assembly has repeatedly rejected Gun violence reduction legislation. 

Dawkins said lawmakers also should have done more to address the root causes of crime in Pennsylvania’s cities. 

“I can assure you that when the Democrats take control we will do something to provide resources to the city of Philadelphia to get to the bottom of why our young people make bad decisions,” Dawkins said.

Dawkins made a motion for the Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing to examine the allegations more closely and build a record upon which lawmakers could decide how to vote. The motion failed along party lines. 

Rep. Mike Zabel, D-Delaware, said the articles of impeachment represent a weaponization of the state constitution for political gain. 

“As stewards of this commonwealth, this should terrify us,” Zabel said, adding that it would set a precedent for future legislatures.

Zabel said the articles have no basis in fact, law, or precedent. He noted that he was one of a number of Democrats who voted to hold Krasner in contempt of the House after he refused to comply with a subpoena from the select committee investigating his office. 

Zabel said he voted that way even though he didn’t agree with the intent because he believes the law is the law, but added, “There’s a limit to the partisan games I’m willing to play.”

“A no vote means our constitution is more important than scoring political points,” Zabel 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.