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Rolf Larsen, impeached Pa. Supreme Court justice, dies at 79

| Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014, 11:32 a.m.
Rolf Larsen, a Democrat, won election to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in 1974, making a name for himself by jailing men who didn’t pay child support. Voters elected him to the state Supreme Court in 1977.
James M. Kubus | Trib Total Media
Rolf Larsen, a Democrat, won election to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in 1974, making a name for himself by jailing men who didn’t pay child support. Voters elected him to the state Supreme Court in 1977.

Rolf Larsen, the only Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice removed from office by the Senate in 226 years, died on Monday in Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Squirrel Hill, an employee of the center said. He was 79.

“It was a pretty gallant fight with cancer,” said John Tumolo, a Downtown attorney who knew Larsen for 40 years. “He was actually pretty healthy up until the last several weeks.”

Larsen's criminal conviction for having his doctor write prescriptions in the names of four court employees brought unprecedented scrutiny and shame to the nation's oldest appellate court, and his impeachment in the Senate for improperly meeting with a Pittsburgh attorney and deciding whether to accept or reject appeals based on his recommendations prompted the court to implement drastic reforms.

Together, his actions and antics captivated regional and sometimes national news attention.

“I've been in the legal community for 43 years, and I have to say he was truly a great legal mind. His opinions, whether you agreed with him or not, always made a lot of sense,” said Cumberland County lawyer William C. Costopoulos, who represented Larsen in his criminal trial and impeachment.

Born in Pittsburgh on Aug. 26, 1934, Larsen married and divorced twice. He had two brothers and a daughter.

Larsen practiced as a private attorney Downtown for 13 years and lectured at Duquesne University's School of Law. He lived in Mt. Washington.

An eccentric judge

A Democrat, Larsen won election to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court in 1974, making a name for himself by jailing men who didn't pay child support. Voters elected him to the state Supreme Court in 1977.

Former law clerk S. Michael Streib recalled working with him as a great experience.

“I learned quite a bit about the law and about life. He was a brilliant man, but he was also one of the few politicians who made promises and kept them after he was elected,” Streib said.

As a justice, Larsen was plain-spoken and developed a reputation for being an independent, law-and-order jurist.

“He could converse as well with the janitor as he could with the chief justice,” Streib said.

His eccentricities confounded people. He did “precisely” 222 sit-ups every day. When asked about that by a prosecutor, Larsen replied: “Yeah ... is there a better number?” He'd send a secretary to the Strip District in search of the perfect cantaloupe, and it had to be room temperature or he'd spit it on the floor.

His drink was Tab, a diet cola, and Chivas Regal, a top-shelf scotch. Throughout his impeachment trial, he rarely kept his shoes on and would pace the floor in socks.

Trouble on the bench

Larsen's problems on the high court dated to at least 1980, when media accounts linked him to an effort to organize a campaign against the retention of Justice Robert N.C. Nix Jr., who stood between Larsen and the post of chief justice. A two-year investigation by the now-defunct Judicial Inquiry Review Board recommended no disciplinary action.

Then, fearing he wouldn't win retention if the public found out about his clinical depression and anxiety, Larsen asked a friend, Dr. Earl Humphreys of Pine, to write his prescriptions in the names of court employees beginning in 1981. Larsen told a grand jury that he wanted to avoid disclosing his 30-year battle with mental illness. The medications included Valium, Librium, Ativan and Serax, all non-narcotic tranquilizers.

Larsen won retention in 1987.

By May 1988, the Judicial Inquiry Review Board accused him of improperly contacting Allegheny County Judge Eunice Ross to influence a case in her court. In October 1992, Justices Stephen Zappala and Ralph Cappy voted to reprimand Larsen; Justice Nicholas Papadakos dissented. The remaining four justices did not participate.

Larsen appealed the reprimand, accusing Zappala and Cappy of engaging in criminal and judicial misconduct that included taking kickbacks and fixing cases. He accused Zappala and former Sen. Vincent Fumo, a powerful Philadelphia Democrat, of trying to run him over outside the Four Seasons Hotel.

By late October 1992, Attorney General Ernie Preate Jr. named two special prosecutors to direct an investigation of the state Supreme Court. A statewide grand jury found no evidence to support Larsen's allegations but said Larsen made claims against his colleagues with “reckless disregard for the truth.”

A week later, the grand jury recommended Larsen be prosecuted on one count of criminal conspiracy and 27 counts of illegally obtaining tranquilizers.

An Allegheny County jury on April 9, 1994, convicted Larsen on two felony counts of conspiracy. Neither the doctor, whom prosecutors granted immunity in return for his testimony, nor members of Larsen's staff were prosecuted.

Two months later, Judge W. Terrence O'Brien removed Larsen from the bench and sentenced him to 240 hours of community service and two years of probation.

He remained the only sitting Supreme Court justice to be convicted of a crime until February 2013, when a jury found Joan Orie Melvin of Marshall guilty of using her seat on the Superior Court to campaign for the Supreme Court.

“We all make mistakes. I never held it against him,” Preate said. In 1995, Preate, of Scranton, resigned from office after pleading guilty to a federal mail fraud charge.

Impeached and barred

In July 1994, the state House voted, 199-0, to impeach Larsen on seven charges of misbehavior, and the Court of Judicial Discipline suspended him without his $108,000 salary.

A five-week hearing resulted in the Senate convicting Larsen on one count for improperly meeting with Pittsburgh attorney Richard Gilardi and deciding whether to accept or reject appeals based on his recommendations. Gilardi had appealed two cases to the high court and won both.

The Senate acquitted Larsen of more serious accusations, including keeping a secret list of cases on appeal to track their outcome for attorney friends and political supporters; lying to a grand jury; improperly meeting with Ross; falsely accusing other justices of improprieties; having court employees obtain his medications in their names; and a general charge of damaging the integrity of Pennsylvania's judicial system and betraying public trust.

The Senate voted, 49-0, to bar Larsen from holding public office. The Court of Judicial Discipline disbarred him in 2000.

A three-judge Commonwealth Court panel ruled in 2011 that Larsen could collect a pension based on his initial 1994 removal from office.

Costopoulos said his former client was “bitter — with good reason” about the way things shook out.

“He devoted his entire life to the system, and he felt betrayed by the system when he needed it most,” he said. “He never betrayed his principles.”

Funeral arrangements are incomplete.

Adam Brandolph and Brad Bumsted are Trib Total Media staff writers.

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