Community Organizations Stand up for Philadelphia Voters in Court Filing Opposed to Unaccountable State-Appointed SEPTA Prosecutor

March 1, 2024 – Last year, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed legislation stripping prosecutorial authority over crimes on SEPTA property from elected District Attorney Larry Krasner and installing a state-appointed prosecutor in Philadelphia County.

Today, community organizations representing Philadelphia voters and their interests—POWER Interfaith, Pennsylvania Policy Center, Abolitionist Law Center, Common Cause Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP, NAACP Philadelphia Branch, League of Women Voters of Philadelphia, Make the Road Pennsylvania, and Urban League of Philadelphia—have filed an amicus brief challenging the law, in a case brought by Krasner. They are represented by attorneys from the ACLU – PA, Arnold & Porter, and the Public Interest Law Center.

In a statement released after the brief was filed, the organizations said that the law side-steps core principles of democracy by effectively replacing, without any accountability to Philadelphia voters, District Attorney Krasner, who was reelected to a second term by a broad margin in 2021.

“This law would set a dangerous precedent that Harrisburg politicians who have never lived in Philadelphia can overturn our elections over policy disagreements,” said Bishop Dwayne Royster, Executive Director of POWER Interfaith. “Undermining the authority of an elected official so blatantly runs counter to fundamental principles of democracy. This cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged.”

The organizations argue that the law, Act 40, is unconstitutional under the Pennsylvania state constitution’s equal protection guarantee by treating Philadelphia voters differently than voters anywhere else in the commonwealth and undermining their right to choose their local representatives in free and equal elections.

Read the brief here.

“Act 40 effectively nullifies hundreds of thousands of votes, flagrantly disregarding the majority view of Pennsylvania’s most populous city and infringing on voters’ right to representation by stripping District Attorney Krasner of significant prosecutorial authority and assigning it to an unelected official (the “Act 40 Prosecutor”) who is not accountable to Philadelphia voters.,” the brief reads.

The organizations challenged the claim by the law’s supporters that the special prosecutor appointed for SEPTA under Act 40 would simply provide additional resources for law enforcement.

“This law replaces a Philadelphia prosecutor who is accountable to the city’s voters with a political appointee who is effectively accountable to no one.”

They pointed to language in the statute that says, “a special prosecutor may assert preemptive prosecutorial jurisdiction over any criminal actions…in cases in which a special prosecutor asserts preemptive prosecutorial jurisdiction under this section, no other prosecuting entity for the Commonwealth shall have authority to act, except as authorized by the special prosecutor.”

“This law replaces a Philadelphia prosecutor who is accountable to the city’s voters with a political appointee who is effectively accountable to no one,” said Claudia DePalma, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “This prosecutor would never have to face voters in the community they are appointed to oversee, unlike any other prosecutor in Pennsylvania.”

Contrary to assertions from the proponents of Act 40, District Attorney Krasner has brought charges against individuals arrested on SEPTA in 92 percent of cases, in line with his predecessors. Krasner was reelected to a second term with 69 percent of the vote in 2021, running on a platform that included implementing policies to address over-policing in Black and Brown neighborhoods and deprioritizing prosecutions of certain low-level offenses.

“This is an example of disrespect from Harrisburg legislators towards voters in the only county in Pennsylvania where the majority of the electorate are people of color,” said Stephen Loney, Senior Supervising Attorney of the ACLU-PA. “We should not accept this attempt to nullify Philadelphia voters’ decision to elect a local official that pursues policies that some politicians hundreds of miles away dislike.”