As Washington, D.C. roils over the impeachment of President Donald Trump let’s go back 25 years in Pennsylvania history.
In 1994 state Supreme Court Justice Rolf Larsen was impeached by the House of Representatives, convicted by Pennsylvania’s Senate and removed from office.
Larsen was accused of improperly communicating with a lower court trial judge, allegedly to influence the outcome of a case. He was also charged with influencing which cases the state’s highest court would hear to the benefit of a political supporter
Moreover, the state Supreme Court Justice was accused of improperly obtaining medications for his clinical depression and anxiety disorder. Those prescriptions were written for court employees who reportedly bought the drugs through their respective state medical benefits program. He obviously wanted to conceal his condition — that affects an estimated 20% of the U.S. population.
In retrospect, however, it’s obvious that personal and professional politics was a major factor in Larsen’s impeachment.
Before his ouster, the defrocked justice had an ongoing feud with then Chief Justice Robert N. C. Nix.
Nix was a light-skinned black man who always used blue-toned and sepia photos in an effort to conceal his race, especially during retention elections. Larsen threatened to expose him.
Moreover, Larsen was an eccentric. Instead of zippering his judicial robe, he closed it with a gold chain between a pair of gold medallions. He also brought an urn containing his mother’s cremains to the bench for each session of the court.
His offbeat behavior reportedly irritated the other justices.
Justice Stephen Zappala was particularly irked by his fellow jurist. He reportedly teamed-up with former state Sen. Vincent Fumo, a powerful Philadelphia Democrat to have his eccentric judicial colleague removed.
Both alleged that Larsen tried to run them down with his car outside a Philadelphia hotel. No official charges are known to have been filed. It was, however, mentioned during the state Senate’s impeachment trial.
State Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, led the House impeachment investigation. He also prosecuted the case against Larsen in the Senate trial. Dermody is now state House minority leader.
However, the Pittsburgh area Democrat noted the Larsen Impeachment was Pennsylvania’s first in 150 years.
Ironically, Fumo was later convicted in federal courts of 137 of official corruption, removed from office and imprisoned.
Zappala eventually became Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice. His son is Allegheny County’s District Attorney.
As a common pleas court judge in Allegheny County, Larsen ruled that prospective jurors would only serve one day. If not picked for a trial on their first day, they need not return.
Trump is accused of colluding with a foreign government to influence a U.S. election for his benefit — a very serious allegation.
Twenty-five years-ago, Larsen was accused of fraudulently obtaining medications for a condition that involves a brain chemistry imbalance, not insanity. However, he was found guilty of improperly influencing the state Supreme Court case docket.
Yet, the question recurs: How much of the Larsen case was really about judicial integrity or personal politics?
Larsen died five years ago. Thus, we may never know.