What a Pennsylvania impeachment 25 years ago says about where we are now

In 1994, state Rep. Frank Dermody was a backbench Democrat serving his second term in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

That year, the majority-Democrat chamber undertook a task it hadn’t undertaken in a century – the impeachment of a sitting member of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

The House’s 1994 investigation of then-Justice Rolf Larsen, who’d been accused of abusing the authority of his office, took months. He was tried, and convicted, in October of that year, during a state Senate trial that took about two weeks. Out of seven articles of impeachment approved by the House, Larsen was found guilty on one count, and removed from office. He died in 2014 at the age of 79.

I had a chance to talk with Dermody, the top Democrat in the House, about his experience as one of the managers of the Larsen impeachment and the lessons it holds for the U.S. House as it moves ahead with a vote on impeachment articles this week against President Donald Trump.

This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.

Q: There’s been a lot of talk about ‘high crimes and misdemeanors’ meaning whatever Congress says it means. Did you find yourself in a similar situation with Larsen?

Dermody: “There’s no definition – their language is “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Ours calls it “high crimes and misdemeanors and misbehavior in office.”

“We did seven articles … The main one was that we could clearly show that he gave preference to certain lawyers to get their cases before the Supreme Court. And that was the count [for which he was] convicted.

Q: You said your investigation lasted for months. The process in Congress has happened with comparable speed. Do you think they’re going too fast?

Dermody: “It seems speedy. The evidence they were able to gather came a little easier than what we had to do. They’ve been able to move quickly. They’ve been able to develop evidence from witnesses … They’re doing their job. They have the transcript of the [Ukraine] call; the information from the whistleblower and the witnesses who corroborated that testimony. It seems like sufficient time to do it.”

Q: In the end, is this a legal process or a political process?

Dermody: “To a large extent, it’s a political process. We decide what misbehavior in office is. [Congress] decides what high crimes and misdemeanors is. If you’re reading the Federalist papers, there are concerns about foreign powers being involved in our elections.”

The one through line that emerged from my conversation with Dermody was that the abuse of power count lodged against Larsen, who was accused of improperly communicating with a judge, is similar to the accusation against Trump, who’s been accused of improper communications with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

What also stands out is the fact that there was bipartisan agreement in the state House and Senate on the scope of Larsen’s wrongdoing – which also included criminal conspiracy charges involving prescription drugs – and the vote to impeach and eventually convict him.

That bipartisan agreement is entirely absent from the current debate on Capitol Hill, even though the accusations against Trump, which also include obstruction of Congress, are equally grave.

When we wrapped up our conversation, Dermody, who’s now in the twilight of his career, told me he hoped that Pennsylvania would never again have to go through an impeachment. Given the law of averages, it seems likely that there may yet be another such proceeding.

With the House Judiciary Committee’s vote this week, Trump becomes only the fourth president to face impeachment by the House, and likely only the third to actually be impeached by the chamber.

As difficult as these proceedings were then – and are now – and as deep as the feelings among Trump’s partisans and critics run, they’re also a reminder of the genius of the Founders, and of the finely crafted mechanism they created to keep power in check among the three branches of government.

We have a Republic, as Franklin famously exhorted us. Impeachment gives us the power to make sure we can keep it.

Copyright 2019 John L. Micek, distributed by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.

An award-winning political journalist, John L. Micek is Editor-in-Chief of The Pennsylvania Capital-Star in Harrisburg, Pa. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @ByJohnLMicek.