Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has taken a stunning mid-trial plea deal on a single corruption count and now faces up to five years in prison.
The Thursday morning plea, which was made in tandem with Williams’ immediate resignation as the city’s top law enforcement official, ends a years-long saga that covered wild campaign spending and charges of influence-peddling. But the city must now grapple with the ramifications of a DA abruptly leaving office.
Williams’s sudden departure has triggered an unusual judicial appointment process to select a successor.
“It hasn’t happened since 1991,” said campaign lawyer Adam Bonin, referring to one-time Court of Common Pleas Judge Lynne Abraham’s appointment after then-DA Ron Castille resigned to run for mayor. “Basically, the statute says the judges of the Court of Common Pleas will convene and appoint a 'competent person.'”
On paper, the 80-member “Board of Judges” will convene, review applicants and ultimately vote to appoint a successor to fill out the remainder of Williams’ term.
But which candidates appear before the board is an open-ended question. Although extremely unlikely, even primary favorites like Larry Krasner, a Democrat and longtime defense attorney, or Beth Grossman, a Republican and former ADA, could theoretically submit applications. Another possibility is that Kathleen Martin, the former chief of staff who is acting as interim DA, could remain in the post until the new DA takes office
“There’s nothing in the statute about an interview process or self-nomination. The process of presenting candidates is really up to President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper,” Bonin said.
Woods-Skipper did not immediately return a call for comment.
In February, City&State PA reported that judges Leon Tucker, Dan McCaffery and Ben Lerner had all squeezed Congressman and Democratic party kingpin Bob Brady for his support in replacing Williams via appointment. That was before Williams had been indicted by federal prosecutors or even announced that he would not seek reelection.
“Many of the judges on the court have been endorsed by the party and there is a belief that support from the chairman is valuable,” Bonin said. “Is it? I don’t know.”
In 1991, Brady had lobbied hard behind the scenes for Judge Russell M. Nigro’s appointment, even threatening to back primary candidates against Abraham down the road if she won. In the end, Abraham was selected by just two votes over the party favorite. Brady never made good on the threats.
“We're used to our political squabbles in the Democratic Party," Brady said, at the time. "My main purpose as chairman, after these squabbles, is to put the pieces back together again."
However, the stakes are much lower this go-round – in fact, why a sitting judge would want to serve as interim DA might be a more interesting question than who is on deck.
Philadelphia judges are elected in low-interest elections to seats often regarded as near-lifetime appointments. It’s a lot to give up for a roughly six-month term as interim DA, before the victor of the November general election takes office.
“Once you're on the court, you're on for a 10-year term with up or down retention, which have historically been perfunctory votes,” said Bonin. “If I were a sitting judge...there would have to be an understanding in place that the (DA’s) office needs a competent and independent person to serve out this vacancy and then the governor could reappoint that person to fill their old seat afterward.”
Meanwhile, rumors have circulated that someone – possibly one of the interested judges – might use the appointment as a platform to challenge Krasner, the odds-on favorite to win in the November general election.
This is a longshot: none of the candidates rumored to be eying an appointment had switched party registration in time for a run as an independent, and any such candidate would need to collect over 4,000 signatures by an August 1 filing deadline to run.
Inquirer columnist Chris Brennan had also reported on Tucker’s alleged interest in an elaborate switcheroo with GOP candidate. But Grossman has publicly said she would never consider stepping down.