News & Politics

Larry Krasner files suit against law seeking to appoint special prosecutor in Philadelphia

Act 40 requires a special prosecutor be appointed to oversee criminal activity taking place near SEPTA

Larry Krasner and city officials speak to the press

Larry Krasner and city officials speak to the press Jared Piper/Philadelphia City Council

In the next chapter of the ongoing conflict between Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner and Harrisburg Republicans, Krasner filed suit Thursday against a state law that would require a special prosecutor be appointed to oversee crimes taking place near SEPTA property. 

Krasner’s office filed a legal challenge in Commonwealth Court Thursday morning, outlining seven counts his administration says deem the law unconstitutional. 

The passage of Act 40 and the subsequent fallout follows efforts in 2022 by Republicans in Harrisburg to impeach Krasner. After the initial impeachment proceedings, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled that the seven Articles of Impeachment brought against Krasner didn’t meet the constitutional standard for misbehavior in public office. 

Surrounded by local and state officials and transit advocates at a press conference Thursday, Krasner called Act 40 and efforts to supersede his prosecutorial authority anti-democratic. 

“When I made the unexpected decision to run for DA in 2017, I thought that meant District Attorney. I didn't know that DA actually stood for ‘democracy advocate,’” Krasner said Thursday, claiming the law attempts to subvert the votes in the commonwealth’s biggest, most diverse city. “This is straight up an effort to erase the votes of 155,102 people who struggled through the inconvenience of voting so they will be heard in an election that was won with a margin of 44%.”

In the complaint, which asks the Commonwealth Court to block the implementation of Act 40, Krasner calls the law an “unconstitutional, radical and unprecedented measure” and a “constitutional train wreck.”

Act 40 comes out of Senate Bill 140, which was passed late last year in a bipartisan fashion. The bill was introduced by Republican state Sen. Wayne Langerholc as part of the party’s efforts to oust Krasner, who they say is failing the city with his prosecutorial approach and priorities.

The legislation was approved by the state Senate in May and passed through the Democratic-led state House in December by a margin of 159-44, with 58 Democrats approving the measure. It was then signed into law by Gov. Josh Shapiro as part of the package of budget bills finally approved by the legislature. 

Attorney John Summers, who is representing Krasner’s office, said that based on case law, their interpretation is that the special prosecutor’s legal authority could stretch within 500 yards of any SEPTA station or stop, which equates to 89% of the land and about 95% of criminal incidents in the city. 

Summers highlighted concerns not only with the potential subversion of Krasner’s authority and the city’s voters, but also with the precedent this law could set for elected officials in the future. 

“The principles of democracy in this commonwealth say that it’s the county district attorney that’s to do the prosecuting and the investigating of crimes in that county. It’s not the business of other district attorneys or other special counsels to do it,” Summers said, adding that if the law were to be found unconstitutional after the special prosecutor began prosecuting crimes, those cases would have to be dismissed. “Every person charged under the special counsel is going to have a defense that the special counsel doesn’t have any authority.”

Republican leadership, on the other hand, sees the law as a check on what they call “weak and absent leadership” from Krasner. 

“Act 40 is strong legislation which received bipartisan support by the General Assembly, was signed into law by Democrat Governor Shapiro and is supported by SEPTA,” Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, a Republican from Indiana County, said in a statement. “It is time DA Krasner stops playing political games and starts working with Republicans and Democrats alike to make sure America’s sixth-largest city is safe.”

Langerholc also pushed back on Krasner’s interpretation, saying the law provides “an additional layer of safety analogous to a special task force on crime that should be met with open arms.”

“Rather than accept this additional resource, the District Attorney has chosen to cloud and muddy the issue claiming it is about voter suppression or elimination of his position,” Langerholc said in a statement.

Sean Damon, organizing director of the Amistad Law Project, called out the Democratic lawmakers who voted for the original legislation during Thursday’s press conference, saying they should be “ashamed.” 

“What they’re greenlighting is further shenanigans that will undermine the power of everyday people to govern over themselves and elect their own representatives,” Damon said. “This is a disrespectful bill to everybody in the city of Philadelphia.”

If the law were to be implemented, Attorney General Michelle Henry would be tasked with appointing a special prosecutor. Henry’s office previously said in an email that it is reviewing the legislation to fully understand the jurisdictional complexities and the office’s responsibilities. 

In response to today’s filing, Henry released a statement that emphasized that Act 40 did not originate at her office’s request, adding that “Unless and until a court of law declares Act 40 unconstitutional, the Office of Attorney General is required, pursuant to the Commonwealth’s Attorney Act, to carry out this legislative mandate. Act 40 does not permit any discretion on the part of our agency to appoint a special prosecutor – it compels it. Our office has worked hard to meet the mandate to appoint a special prosecutor, but given the narrow requirements set by the legislature, we have been unable to do so. We will respond to Mr. Krasner's complaint as required by court rules.”