Larry Krasner hurt by poor impeachment language in Pa. constitution

When the US Constitution’s drafters were deciding what offenses would be so bad as to warrant impeachment, James Madison was worried that certain proposed language would be too vague to be enforceable. After some debate, the founders settled on, “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

Somewhere, somehow, James Madison must be looking at Pennsylvania and the show trial of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s impeachment — and laughing his britches off.

Because as arguably vague as the US Constitution’s impeachment parameters are, they’re scientifically precise when compared to the Pennsylvania Constitution, which was just used by the lame-duck Pennsylvania House of Representatives to impeach Krasner. The Pennsylvania rules read: “The Governor and all other civil officers shall be liable to impeachment for any misbehavior in office.”

That’s it. “Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors” vs. “any misbehavior in office.” Hardly a fair fight. (Never mind that the US Constitution’s erratic capitalization of nouns constitutes a high crime of its own.)

Like dictionaries, constitutions are reference materials. But also like dictionary definitions, which can vary wildly from book to book, different constitutions provide stark disagreement on what is impeachable.

The Pennsylvania House Republicans who impeached Krasner last week put a ton of stock in that word “misbehavior,” which appears 13 times in their 17-page articles of impeachment. They don’t purport that anything in those 17 pages comes close to treason, bribery, or high crimes and misdemeanors, but fortunately for Krasner’s tormentors, Pennsylvania has a much lower and vaguer bar.

The dictionary definitions of misbehavior don’t help “Bad, improper, or rude behavior: ill conduct,” reads Merriam-Webster; “bad behavior, improper conduct,” counters the Oxford English Dictionary, suggesting the most controversial question about behavior is whether it includes the letter U.

The Krasner impeachment articles spend a few paragraphs on the definition of misbehavior, only to conclude that the word’s definitions are seemingly unlimited: “there is no precedent that the current language is so constrained.” Also not helpful.

Which is how we end up with a district attorney, overwhelmingly reelected last year by Philadelphia voters, subject to impeachment because largely non-Philadelphians don’t like how he does his job. Those out-of-towners seized on the vagueness of misbehavior and are trying to use it to put Krasner out of work.

Pennsylvania’s Constitution wasn’t always so imprecise. Before the current text was adopted in 1968, the previous version said impeachment was “for any misdemeanor in office” — a far legal cry from “misbehavior.” But 1968 changed everything.

Is it any wonder that, in a polarized 2022, Pennsylvania Republicans would choose to weaponize vague language?

The language in the US Constitution is much more useful because it is more precise than the Pennsylvania Constitution’s. That might explain why, for the vast majority of the country’s history, impeachment has been used relatively judiciously at the national level.

But with the US House of Representatives back in Republican control — and, as of this past May, more than two-thirds of Republicans think President Biden should be impeached for … his son’s laptop? – we’re likely to soon hear a lot more about what kind of conduct is impeachable.

At that point, things will get uglier, but at least we can be grateful that the US Constitution’s authors cared more about precision in language than Pennsylvania’s.

The Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and proposals to [email protected].


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