Rolf Larsen, the only Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice to be impeached and removed from office, died of lung cancer Monday at Charles Morris Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill. He was 79 and lived in Mount Washington.
A candid, complex man dubbed “a rebel in robes,” he was more comfortable talking with working people than his fellow judges. During the 1970s, his three-year stint on the Allegheny County Common Pleas Court bench garnered national headlines when he jailed “deadbeat dads,” forcing them to pay child support. The tactic increased his popularity among female voters and ushered in stricter enforcement of court-ordered support for a child or spouse.
“For years, nobody ever enforced a child support order. It wasn’t done,” said attorney John Tumolo, who was Mr. Larsen’s law clerk in the early 1970s. Now, he added, “It may appear to be something that is just common sense. Believe me, back in those days, it just wasn’t common sense.”
“Rolf was never afraid to stick up for something that he believed was right … He was always a protector of people that needed to be protected,” Mr. Tumolo said.
In 1977, at Mr. Larsen’s urging, Allegheny County Common Pleas Court adopted a one-day, one-trial jury system modeled on courts in Detroit and Houston. Under the new system, potential jurors spent one day waiting to be chosen for a panel. If they were not selected, they were sent home and not required to return. Previously, potential jurors spent two weeks at the courthouse waiting to be chosen for a jury.
In November 1977, Mr. Larsen won election to the state Supreme Court, making him the fourth Democrat on Pennsylvania’s highest court. He defeated Common Pleas Judge Frank J. Montemuro of Philadelphia for the seat.
Michael Streib, a retired Duquesne University law professor, served as a law clerk to Mr. Larsen during the late 1970s.
“Rolf never fit the mold. He was definitely his own person,” Mr. Streib said.
During the 1970s, when the state Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Pittsburgh, a prominent Pittsburgh law firm often held a reception or dinner in the justices’ honor at Downtown’s private Duquesne Club. All justices were invited except Justice Robert. N.C. Nix because he was black and at the time and the club did not admit blacks or women to membership.
Although Mr. Larsen and Justice Nix were not friends, Mr. Larsen wrote a letter to the hosts saying that if Justice Nix wasn’t invited, he wasn’t going to attend either.
Mr. Larsen was born in Pittsburgh on Aug. 26, 1934, the son of Rhorbjorn Ruud and Mildren Young Larsen. He grew up in Penn Hills and served in the Army from 1954 to 1956.
He earned his law degree at Dickinson School of Law in 1960. Between 1960 and 1962, he worked at the law offices of J.P. McArdle, led by the city’s most prominent plaintiffs’ attorney.
From the start, Mr. Larsen made a name for himself. During the 1960s, when he practiced law in a street-level office in Downtown’s Allegheny Building, he put his name on the door in foot-high letters, a move that marked him as a maverick in an era when the legal community frowned upon advertising.
Attorney Edgar Snyder, who built his successful reputation with newspaper and television ads, said: “People were aghast that he was putting his name out there prominently. That’s why he used to laugh with me at the Rivers Club. He was always filling my head with things that he thought I should be doing. He really was ahead of his time.”
Mr. Larsen’s Supreme Court tenure, which began in 1978, was marred by interminable controversy. By May 1983, the state Board of Judicial Inquiry and Review had closed an investigation into allegations that Mr. Larsen had engaged in “injudicious politicking” on behalf of candidates for the Supreme Court. Judicial conduct rules prohibit political involvement by judges.
That investigation, begun in the early 1980s, involved testimony by 85 witnesses and 5,000 pages of transcript, but the proceedings remained secret. By a vote of 6-3, the board rejected the accusations.
Nearly a decade later, in 1992, Mr. Larsen made accusations against two fellow jurists — Stephen Zappala and Ralph Cappy, both of whom had voted to reprimand him for misconduct in a 1986 case.
A year later, in October 1993, state Attorney General Ernie Preate charged Mr. Larsen with sending employees to forge his signature for prescription drugs that he took for severe depression and anxiety.
“He just suffered from depression and he went to whatever lengths he could to keep it from getting out there,” said his former defense lawyer, William A. Costopoulos.
By 1994, Mr. Larsen was under investigation by the Judicial Conduct Board, and faced criminal charges and an impeachment trial in the state Legislature.
“He just never weakened in his resolve to meet them all head-on. He would tell me to quit whining about the fact that all three branches of government were on the move,” Mr. Costopoulos said.
Mr. Larsen alleged that the filing of criminal charges against him in 1993 was politically motivated because the prosecution was announced after Mr. Larsen made allegations against Justices Zappala and Cappy.
Mr. Larsen’s allegations against his fellow jurists led to the appointment of special prosecutors and the empaneling of a grand jury. Only Mr. Larsen was charged.
From 1981 on, said Bruce Ledewitz, a Duquesne law professor whose work focuses on the state Supreme Court, Mr. Larsen’s judicial tenure was marked by “incredible, impersonal, vituperative conduct by the justices in one episode after another.”
Mr. Larsen even accused Justice Zappala of attempting to run him down with a car in Philadelphia. Those public accusations, Mr. Ledewitz said, led to a loss of the court’s credibility among the public.
Although he had already been removed from office, the impeachment and Court of Judicial Discipline proceedings continued.
In 1993, Pennsylvania voters approved a constitutional amendment that created a two-tiered system to investigate and discipline judges.
Mr. Larsen’s impeachment trial in Harrisburg stretched for weeks and featured 12 hours of testimony from the defendant before concluding Oct. 3, 1994. He was impeached Oct. 4, 1994, on one of the seven counts against him.
The state Senate voted 44-5 to convict Mr. Larsen of improperly meeting with Richard Gilardi, an attorney friend, and deciding on whether to accept or reject appeals based on Mr. Gilardi’s recommendations. Mr. Larsen was acquitted of the most serious allegation — that he kept a special list of cases involving attorney friends and political contributors to earmark for favorable treatment.
Although the state Senate found that Mr. Larsen's criminal convictions were not enough to merit removal from the bench, the legislative body voted unanimously for removal on its own, as well as a ban on his ever holding public office again.
Mr. Larsen’s ultimate criminal conviction and impeachment ushered in a period of overhaul.
“Clearly, change occurred because of the Larsen episodes,” Mr. Ledewitz said.
In the criminal case, Mr. Larsen was charged in October 1993 with using his employees to obtain Valium and other medications for him to treat severe depression and anxiety. He had feared revealing his mental illness publicly.
The scheme began in 1981, prosecutors said, when Mr. Larsen asked his Downtown physician to write prescriptions in the names of his court employees. They would then have them filled and turn the medication over to their boss.
The jury before Common Pleas Judge W. Terrence O’Brien deliberated over two days before returning its verdict in April 1994. Jurors acquitted him of 14 counts of drug fraud but found him guilty of two counts of criminal conspiracy.
At his sentencing, the prosecution asked that Mr. Larsen be removed from the bench.
Judge O’Brien did just that and also ordered Mr. Larsen to serve two years’ probation.
The state Superior Court later upheld the conviction.
Five years later, in 1999, Mr. Larsen went on trial before the Court of Judicial Discipline, where he was found guilty of violating ethics rules and later disbarred.
Mr. Larsen’s daughter, Nina of the North Hills, said he was “an amazing man, a wonderful father, grandfather, brother, uncle and friend. He was strong in body and mind and one of the smartest, [most] well-informed people I knew. He was brilliant and a fighter till the end. I loved and adored him.”
Lynn A. Marks, executive director of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts, a statewide, nonpartisan organization focused on court overhaul, said Mr. Larsen’s legal travails had a silver lining for the state’s citizens.
“It led to a constitutional amendment strengthening the way that Pennsylvania judges are disciplined for misconduct in Pennsylvania. They needed to have a new judicial discipline system. His case gave it legs,” Ms. Marks said. Before that, “The Supreme Court had to deal with disciplining one of their own.”
Ms. Marks also remembered Mr. Larsen for a dissent he wrote in a 1980 case that involved whether statements by a sexual assault victim to a counselor at Pittsburgh Action Against Rape were confidential. The woman’s statement had been subpoenaed and although everyone assumed it was confidential, no legal privilege covered what she had said. PAAR refused to release its records.
The State Supreme Court held that such statements had a limited privilege.
Mr. Larsen, “in an elegant dissent, said that conversations between rape victims and their counselors should be privileged. He basically was our hero,” Ms. Marks recalled.
Soon after that case was heard and argued on appeal before the state Supreme Court, women’s groups persuaded the state Legislature to pass a law granting a confidential privilege to statements sexual assault victims made to counselors.
Funeral arrangements were unavailable.
Marylynne Pitz: email@example.com or 412-263-1648. Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620. First Published August 12, 2014 11:04 AM