It’s only a five-month appointment, but Philadelphia voters should pay close attention to this week’s selection of a temporary replacement for former District Attorney Seth Williams, who resigned in June after pleading guilty to corruption charges.
Neither Democratic candidate Larry Krasner or Republican Beth Grossman have applied for the job, but the interim district attorney finalists to be selected by a panel of judges should exhibit qualities that voters will want to see in the person they elect in November to a full four-year term.
Fourteen people have applied for the temporary assignment, including Kathleen Martin, Williams’ former chief of staff, who has been running the office ever since he surrendered his law license in April.
The most well-known applicant is Lynne Abraham, who was the city’s district attorney 18 years before stepping down and being replaced by Williams, who had worked in the DA’s office under her.
Abraham’s application raised objections by the NAACP, which hasn’t forgotten her successful objection to President Bill Clinton’s 1997 nomination of Common Pleas Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson to become the city’s first black female federal judge. Abraham and the Fraternal Order of Police fueled criticism of Jackson as too lenient on criminals and biased against whites.
Ironically, Jackson serves as chair of a three-judge panel that will recommend finalists for the interim DA job to the 88-member Board of Common Pleas Court Judges. She could pay back Abraham for scuttling her elevation to the federal bench, but that’s not in the judge’s character. In 2010, she received the city NAACP’s Cecil B. Moore Award. There’s no reason to believe she won’t be fair in her recommendation. The board is expected to make a final decision Thursday.
Also asking for the interim job are retired Judges Paul Panepinto and Benjamin Lerner and former federal prosecutor Joe Khan, who was one of the losers in the May Democratic primary. The other applicants are John Delaney, William Manfredi, D. Webster Keough, Kelley Hodge, Robert A. Rovner, Curtis Douglas, Arlen Fisk, James Berardinelli, and Leon Williams.
Both the judges making the temporary assignment and voters in November must recognize that despite Williams’ criminality, the DA’s office during his tenure did do some good things.
Williams restructured his office so the same prosecutor handled a case from start to finish. He moved thousands of misdemeanor cases into diversion programs, saving the cost of trials and expensive incarceration. He began a program to get first-time, nonviolent offenders into Community College of Philadelphia instead of jail. He started a Conviction Rate Review Unit to help free the wrongly convicted.
Williams’ replacements must be able to recognize what worked and should continue and what should be discarded. Among the latter should be the disgraceful civil forfeiture program Williams insisted upon, which forced people out of their homes if a family member was accused of dealing drugs.
Williams also never addressed public corruption as strongly as he should have. Perhaps now we know why. The next district attorney must follow a different path.