Rolf Larsen, disgraced Pa. Supreme Court justice, 79
PITTSBURGH - Rolf Larsen, a state Supreme Court justice who was removed from office and later impeached following a conspiracy conviction, has died. He was 79.
His longtime friend and fellow attorney, John Tumolo, told the Associated Press that Mr. Larsen died Monday of lung cancer at a Pittsburgh nursing home.
The Pittsburgh Democrat was removed from the bench in 1994 because of a conviction of conspiring to accept mood-altering drugs in the names of his employees in order to hide a history of mental illness.
Mr. Larsen became the only Supreme Court justice to be impeached later that same year, when he was convicted by the State Senate of voting on whether to hear cases based on input from an attorney who was also a political supporter. The Senate cleared him on six other charges, including those involving the drug purchases and accusations of lying to a grand jury and making false allegations against other justices.
"Even at the most difficult hour of his life, he never lost his sense of humor," said attorney William Costopoulos, who defended Mr. Larsen at his criminal trial, in Senate impeachment hearings, and before the Judicial Conduct Board. "He never lost his compassion for his fellow man. And those qualities are hard to hold onto when you're under fire like that by the system that you gave your life to."
Tumolo said Mr. Larsen instituted the current practice of having jurors serve for one day or one trial when he was still an Allegheny County Common Pleas judge. Before that, potential jurors returned to court for several days in a row to see if they would be selected. He also began the practice of enforcing court orders against parents who didn't pay child support, Tumolo said.
On the high court, Mr. Larsen authored opinions upholding the state's death penalty, drunken driving law and mandatory jail terms for armed felonies. He also issued opinions upholding the implied warranty that residential dwellings are habitable when sold and another governing how child and spousal support was calculated, Tumolo said.
"I think his contributions far outweighed any negatives," Tumolo said.
Born Aug. 26, 1934, in Pittsburgh, Mr. Larsen was elected to the high court in 1977 and took office in 1978.
His downfall began in 1992 when he accused a fellow justice of helping a criminal defendant in an appeal, and another colleague of receiving kickbacks and trying to run Mr. Larsen down with a dark-colored Mercedes outside Philadelphia's Four Seasons Hotel.
A grand jury found those charges to be baseless and leveled accusations that forced impeachment.
He suffered from clinical depression, anxiety and paranoia, according to his doctor and attorney. He said he had court employees obtain prescription drugs to hide the fact that he was taking medication.
He was convicted of two counts of conspiracy in April 1994, and received two years' probation, 240 hours of community service, and was immediately removed from office under the state constitution.
Even though he was off the bench, the legislature pressed ahead with impeachment proceedings in case the criminal verdict was overturned on appeal.
After his removal from office, Mr. Larsen spent years unsuccessfully arguing he had a doctor prescribe his drugs to others to protect his privacy and that doing so was not a crime under state drug laws. He also challenged a suspension of his legal license but was finally disbarred in November 2006 by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Twice divorced, Mr. Larsen is survived by a brother and a daughter. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.