The Pennsylvania House of Representatives voted on Tuesday to hold Philadelphia’s liberal chief prosecutor, Larry Krasner, in contempt for refusing to cooperate with a legislative committee investigating his possible impeachment.
The committee, called the Select Committee on Restoring Law and Order, was formed amid rising concerns over Philadelphia’s crime and murder rates, which have outpaced a nationwide rise in gun violence. More than 1,400 people in the city have been shot this year, hundreds of them fatally, a higher toll than in the much larger cities of New York or Los Angeles.
The vote followed a call for Mr. Krasner’s impeachment by three Republican lawmakers whose districts are far from Philadelphia. Mr. Krasner has been elected twice, both times by wide margins, on a platform that changes like ending cash bail, decriminalizing low-level offenses and reining in police and prosecutorial misconduct would make the city not only more equitable but safer.
He has taken the position that the legislature’s investigation is antidemocratic and illegitimate, and he refused to comply with a subpoena for documents issued by the committee last month. The resulting contempt resolution passed, 162-38, with the help of almost all Republican House members and 49 Democrats, including 10 from Philadelphia, according to a count by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The vote came on the first day of the trial of Eric Ruch Jr., who is believed to be the first police officer in the city to face murder charges in an on-duty killing.
Representative Josh Kail, one of the three Republicans who led the call to impeach Mr. Krasner for what they called “dereliction of duty,” said that the prosecutor’s policies, including dismissing some gun possession cases, were sending the wrong signal to criminals. “The result of a district attorney who refuses to enforce the law is that it leads to a situation where people are not going to have a respect for the law,” he said.
Mr. Krasner’s defenders argue that the Republican-dominated legislature has refused to pass gun restrictions that would curb violence and has instead weakened popular measures like expanding background checks. They say that several analyses have found little evidence that Mr. Krasner’s policies have contributed to crime.
The impeachment attempt is the latest in a series of efforts by conservative lawmakers to push back at a wave of progressive prosecutors who have won office across the country. Mr. Krasner, a former civil rights lawyer, is one of the most outspoken of that group and has long been a favorite target of Republican candidates.
But other prosecutors have faced similar attempts to curb their power and discretion. In Florida last month, Gov. Ron DeSantis suspended an elected prosecutor, Andrew Warren, after he promised not to criminalize transgender people or gender-affirming health care. Mr. DeSantis said that even though Florida had not passed such laws, Mr. Warren’s statement showed that he believed he could defy the legislature. Mr. Warren also said he would not prosecute anti-abortion laws.
Mr. Warren has sued the governor, saying his removal violated free speech rights.
In 2020, when Deborah Gonzalez wanted to become the first Latina elected prosecutor in Georgia, the governor tried unsuccessfully to cancel the election. She won. In 2019, the Pennsylvania legislature passed a law allowing the state attorney general to prosecute gun crimes in Philadelphia, but he backed off after a public outcry.
On Tuesday, lawmakers suggested that the contempt resolution could subject Mr. Krasner to a range of consequences, up to and including imprisonment, but said the legislature had not yet decided on a course of action.
The select committee is made up of three Republicans and two Philadelphia Democrats and was charged with investigating the city’s gun violence, the enforcement of crime victims’ rights, and the use of funds designated for prosecuting crime and supporting crime victims. It was empowered to recommend both legislation and impeachment.
Representative Torren C. Ecker, a Republican member of the committee, defended the interest of the legislature in the affairs of one city: “Philadelphia is the economic driver of our state, and when business owners are closing shop and people are fleeing the city and people are losing lives, it’s our job to take notice of those things.”
In legal filings, Mr. Krasner said that Mr. Ecker’s and Mr. Kail’s districts had both experienced far greater increases in homicides than Philadelphia had. He said that he had committed no impeachable offense, and that at any rate the legislature had the power to impeach only statewide officials. There is no recall provision in Pennsylvania.
In August, the committee subpoenaed a host of records from Mr. Krasner, including any documents pertaining to his policies on enforcement, plea bargains, bail and the investigation of law enforcement officers. It also requested the “complete case file” and the grand jury investigation of Ryan Pownall, a former police officer who is slated to go on trial this fall on charges that he shot a Black man twice in the back, killing him.
Mr. Krasner objected, first in writing to the committee, and then with a petition to the Commonwealth Court, arguing that the subpoena violated the separation of legislative and executive powers, longstanding legal privilege and the constitutional rights of Philadelphia voters. Grand jury proceedings are secret, he said, and the case file of a high-profile, upcoming trial contains highly sensitive information.
The legislature declined to wait for the court to rule before holding Mr. Krasner in contempt. If the House elects to draw up articles of impeachment, it would take a two-thirds vote of the Senate to impeach.
“This is all about politics and power,” said Michael Satin, a lawyer representing Mr. Krasner. “The dominant party in the Pennsylvania House has targeted District Attorney Larry Krasner for impeachment because they disagree with his policies and they can’t beat him at the polls.”