By State Representative Frank Ryan
Recently, I filed articles of impeachment against a sitting justice on the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. This is not a path I take lightly or delight in. In fact, it saddens me.
In early 2020, the world was hit by a terrible and deadly pandemic that exposed serious flaws in our emergency declaration laws. Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order that unilaterally imposed a statewide shutdown of non-essential businesses and government offices. The governor’s “blanket” approach to the pandemic effectively shut down our economy and needlessly put thousands of Pennsylvania citizens out of work. The General Assembly challenged the administration’s dictatorial action, which was ultimately upheld by PA Supreme Court Justice David Wecht, who wrote for the majority following a split decision.
The Bill of Rights grants to every American the protection of their inherent rights, freedoms and liberties and, together with our Constitution, it enumerates those rights, which are reaffirmed in Article 1 of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Our nation was founded upon the principle of checks and balances of three co-equal branches of government with clearly defined roles and responsibilities for the legislative, executive and the judicial branches. When one branch is irreparably weakened by the actions of another, it is the responsibility of the Legislature to intervene on behalf of the people we represent.
The flaws in the Emergency Powers Act were magnified by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court rather than nullified, and this came at the expense of our liberties. The Legislature can intervene through the impeachment process to restore the balance of powers and the liberty of our citizens.
Some will argue that the impeachment is a disagreement about a judicial decision or series of decisions. Again, there are those who would argue that a judge or justice cannot be impeached simply because we disagree with his or her opinion in a specific dispute. I agree. The Articles of Impeachment I filed in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives go well-beyond mere disagreement with Justice Wecht’s opinion.
The justice’s actions over the last five years demonstrate blatant disregard for the rule of law, the separation of powers, and the protections guaranteed under the Pennsylvania and United States constitutions. When a justice engages in such misconduct, he or she endangers the integrity of the Commonwealth’s judiciary and betrays his or her oath of office.
The impeachment process provides that “civil officers” (including justices of the Supreme Court) are liable to impeachment for “any misbehavior in office.” The Pennsylvania House of Representatives “shall have the sole power of impeachment.” Articles of Impeachment are effectively charges filed by the House when we believe a civil officer’s removal is warranted.
If the Articles of Impeachment are approved by the House, the justice would then face trial in the Senate, with the senators effectively sitting as jurors. If two-thirds of the senators approve any one of the Articles of Impeachment, the justice would be removed from office and disqualified from holding any “office of trust or profit” in the Commonwealth. In Pennsylvania, only four judges have been impeached since 1780 – the latest more than 25 years ago. The standard for impeachment does not rely on criminal convictions. A justice can be impeached for willful malfeasance, misfeasance or nonfeasance, in addition to criminal behavior.
Because there have been so few impeachments of justices, there is very little guidance regarding conduct that constitutes “misbehavior in office.” In 1980, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania explained that if a justice violates the Code of Judicial Conduct, “he may be suspended, removed or disciplined by the Supreme Court… in addition to be subjected to the provisions for impeachment contained in Article VI of the Pennsylvania Constitution.” The Supreme Court’s review of Justice Rolf Larson’s impeachment in 1994 demonstrated violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct that constituted “misbehavior in office.” These are the checks and balances we learned about in civics class. Our constitution provides each of the three co-equal branches of government the ability to act as a “check” on the other two.
The judiciary could choose to attend to Justice Wecht’s misconduct under the provisions of Article V, Section 18 of our constitution. However, when the judicial branch fails to discipline one of its own, fails to safeguard its integrity and independence, and fails to ensure that justices adhere to their oaths of office, this unenviable task falls to the General Assembly.
Impeachment is not a path I take lightly. Our founding fathers left us a wonderful legacy and it is our responsibility to guard and protect it for future generations of Americans.
Frank Ryan, CPA, USMCR (Ret) represents the 101st District in the PA House of Representatives. He is a retired Marine Reserve Colonel, a CPA and specializes in corporate restructuring.