U.S. District Judge John Fullam, who presided over such notable cases as the Abscam political-corruption probe and the landmark bankruptcy of Penn Central, said Wednesday that he planned to step down.

"I plan to retire as of April 15," said Fullam, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966.

"I will no longer be taking cases," he told The Inquirer, "but I will finish up what I have on my plate."

Asked about his retirement plans, Fullam quipped: "I hope to continue to breathe. After all, I'll be 90 in September."

He said he hoped to maintain his chambers as his cases were transferred to other judges.

Last week, in an unusual move, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit removed Fullam from a criminal case.

Joemon D. Higden was a convicted felon accused of possessing a firearm. Before the trial in September, Fullam stipulated that Higden was a felon but, despite protests by the U.S. Attorney's Office, would not allow the jury to know that.

When the jury announced it was deadlocked, Fullam - in what the appellate panel described as a "highly unusual step" - offered to poll the jury and accept a majority vote, according to court documents. Both the government and the defense declined the offer.

"We are simply at a loss to explain the court's behavior," Chief Circuit Court Judge Theodore McKee wrote for the panel. "Ours is a nation of laws, not of judges."

Fullam, McKee said, "refused to follow the precedent of this circuit and instead insisted upon conducting a trial according to his own personal view of the law and his own custom."

McKee also praised Fullam in his ruling, calling him "very experienced and hardworking."

Fullam on Wednesday declined to discuss the trial or the panel's ruling. "I'm not going to stir up trouble," he said.

Fullam chatted briefly about his 51-year career, his 34 years on the federal bench in Philadelphia, and his previous assignment as a judge on Bucks County Court.

He counts the 1970 bankruptcy of Penn Central Transportation, which had been created from the merger of the Pennsylvania and New York Central railroads, as the highlight of his career.

"Not only was it the largest bankruptcy in history, it went on for quite a long time . . . and involved a lot of money," Fullam said.

Of Abscam, he said: "It's been a long while."

A U.S. senator, six U.S. representatives, a former Camden mayor, three Philadelphia councilmen, and seven others were implicated in the probe in the late 1970s after federal agents posed as officials from the fictional Abdul Enterprises Inc. offering bribes for political favors.

In 1980, Fullam dismissed the verdict of a jury that found Council President George Schwartz and Councilman Harry Jannotti guilty of accepting $40,000 in bribes, saying there was no evidence the men had done anything "improper" and declaring the government had illegally entrapped them. An appellate court reinstated the convictions.

Contact staff writer Sam Wood

at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com.

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