Judge tosses Lynne Abraham's suit to boot DA Seth Williams from office

Philadelphia Prosecutor Gifts
Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams departs the federal courthouse May 11 after his arraignment on additional charges in his bribery and extortion case. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

A Philadelphia judge on Thursday threw out a lawsuit seeking to oust District Attorney Seth Williams from office while he awaits trial next month on federal bribery and corruption charges.

In a one-page order, Common Pleas Court Judge Daniel J. Anders found that neither of the case’s plaintiffs – Lynne M. Abraham, Williams’ predecessor in office, or Richard A. Sprague, a prominent Center City attorney – had standing to prove harm from the district attorney’s decision to remain in office while under federal indictment.

The suit was dismissed “with prejudice,” meaning that they cannot revise their claims and refile it with the court.

Williams’ lawyer, Thomas Burke, hailed the decision as what he hoped would be the first of several legal victories for his client, who is scheduled to stand trial in his criminal case June 19.

“I don’t think this lawsuit had any basis in law or fact,” Burke said. “I believe this was done to embarrass and harass the district attorney.”

Peter A. Greiner, a lawyer representing Sprague and Abraham, called the judge's decision a disappointment and said his clients intend to seek an expedited appeal with the state Supreme Court.

"We’re disappointed that this ruling was made without even the opportunity for a hearing," he said. "We believe Judge Anders made the wrong decision."

Despite agreeing to the temporary suspension of his law license after his indictment this year, Williams, 50, has remained in his post and has continued to collect his $175,572 salary as he fights to clear his name.

He has appointed his top deputy, Kathleen Martin, to handle day-to-day legal decisions about the criminal cases moving through the office and has limited himself to an administrative role.

Abraham and Sprague argued that without an active law license, Williams no longer met the requirements under state law to remain in his job.

Their suit complicated the relationship between Abraham, who served as district attorney for 19 years, and Williams, a protégé who surprised her with a 2005 bid to unseat her. Williams lost that race, but won the job four years later after Abraham decided not to seek another term.

In earlier court filings, Williams argued that the state courts were not the appropriate venue to address Abraham’s and Sprague’s concerns.

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires all elected officials convicted of felony crimes to resign upon receiving their sentences. But state law also spells out an avenue whereby private citizens can file a complaint for removal against a sitting chief prosecutor by first taking complaints to the attorney general or the disciplinary board of the state Supreme Court.

Sprague and Abraham had done neither.

The governor also is empowered to remove elected officials for “reasonable cause,” but only with the approval of two-thirds of the state Senate. Gov. Wolf has called on Williams to resign but has not indicated that he might take steps to force Williams out.

Williams, a Democrat, has denied allegations that he repeatedly sold the influence of his office in exchange for gifts from wealthy benefactors seeking help with their legal woes. He also entered not-guilty pleas to charges connected to the alleged misuse of his campaign funds and his purported misspending of money set aside for his mother’s nursing home care.