PENNSYLVANIA

Court splits on legality of move to impeach Philadelphia DA

Brooke Schultz and Mark Scolforo
Associated Press

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A split emerged Thursday among a panel of Pennsylvania state judges about whether a Republican-led effort to impeach and seek to remove Philadelphia's progressive prosecutor meets legal standards or if it should be stopped.

It's unclear whether an impeachment trial will proceed against Democratic District Attorney Larry Krasner, who indicated he was pleased that some of the judges agreed with him, while at least one impeachment manager said an appeal was being considered.

In what was described by other judges as both the lead and the majority opinion, Commonwealth Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, a Democrat, said the allegations against Krasner fall short because they do not claim he “failed to perform a positive ministerial duty or performed a discretionary duty with an improper or corrupt motive.”

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FILE - Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner speaks with members of the media during a news conference in Philadelphia, on Oct. 13, 2022. The separation of powers, and where legislative authority stops and the court’s begins, were central to arguments Thursday, Dec. 29, 2022, in court over a lawsuit by Krasner, Philadelphia’s elected prosecutor, challenging the state Legislature’s attempt to remove him from office. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

She said Krasner argued the impeachment articles did not allege conduct that would meet the state constitution's “requirement that he may be impeached and tried only in the event he committed ‘any misbehavior in office.' We agree.”

The impeachment articles fault Krasner’s decision not to prosecute some minor crimes, say he obstructed the House investigation, criticize his policies and management and accuse him of misbehavior involving certain cases.

Another judge, Republican Patricia McCullough, said in a dissent she would dismiss Krasner's legal challenge to the process, letting it go forward.

She said Ceisler's opinion “hurriedly and needlessly plunged this court into a wash of nonjusticiable political questions over which we currently have no decision-making authority.”

And the third opinion, by Democratic Judge Michael Wojcik, said lawmakers did not have grounds to remove Krasner on the three counts that accuse him of violating codes of conduct for lawyers. But the other four impeachment articles, Wojcik wrote, “present nonjusticiable political questions that must ultimately be resolved by the General Assembly pursuant to its constitutional authority.”

He wrote that it was up to the state's voters to decide if “this folly has been a wise use of legislative resources" and for Philadelphia voters to evaluate Krasner's job performance as prosecutor.

The panel's fourth member, Republican Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, was not listed as explicitly joining any of the three opinions.

One of the three House impeachment managers, Rep. Craig Williams, R-Delaware, said Thursday he saw a way forward to remove Krasner and was leaning toward an appeal of the Commonwealth Court ruling. A spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, said the opinions were under review.

The Philadelphia Inquirer said Krasner commented about the court ruling at an unrelated news conference Thursday, saying he was encouraged “to see that the same things we have been saying since the very beginning, of what we described as an illegal process, are being confirmed and verified.”

Krasner was overwhelmingly reelected in 2021.

The opinions were issued a day after the Senate voted unanimously to indefinitely postpone Krasner's trial, which had been scheduled to start Wednesday. The House voted on nearly party lines Nov. 16 to send the case to the Senate for trial, where removal will require a two-thirds vote.

— Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.