The fast-track to becoming Philly’s next DA is to get appointed, it’s been done before

     In this file photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announces that he will not run for re-election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    In this file photo, Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams announces that he will not run for re-election. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

    There are now seven announced candidates for District Attorney of Philadelphia, but a few more potential candidates have been hoping for an end run around the field. It’s an appealing maneuver, but it looks like it’s not going to happen.

    At least three Philadelphia judges are said to be interested in becoming DA, but are reluctant to resign from the bench for a tough, uncertain primary battle.

    There is another way to become District Attorney, and that’s if the incumbent resigns.

    Then, Pennsylvania state law provides that the job is filled by a vote of the judges of the Court of Common Pleas. They’re probably more inclined than the general population to choose one of their own.

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    If a judge were appointed DA by his fellow jurists, he could then run for re-election as the incumbent. That’s exactly how Lynn Abraham got the job more than two decades ago. She was a Common Pleas Judge who was picked by her colleagues in 1991 when DA Ron Castille resigned to run for mayor.

    She then ran for a full term in 1993 as a two-year incumbent. She won and kept the job for another 16 years.

    Judges Leon Tucker, Rayford Means and Dan McCaffery (who ran unsuccessfully for DA in 2009) were said to be interested in repeating Abraham’s move this year, now that incumbent Seth Williams has said he won’t seek re-election.

    There are two obstacles to pulling it off.


    First, District Attorney Williams would have to resign, and there’s no indication he’s interested in an early departure. That could change if the reported federal investigation into his finances results in criminal charges.

    But there’s a serious timing problem for any judge who aspires to get and keep the office through appointment. I asked veteran election lawyer Gregory Harvey what would have to happen for a newly-appointed DA to run as an incumbent in this year’s election.

    “They would have to be in office at least a few days before Tuesday, March 7, which is the last day to file nomination petitions for the primary election,” Harvey said.

    That’s a week from next Tuesday.

    Williams would have resign pretty much right away to make this possible, and even then, the judge-appointed DA would have to scramble to circulate nominating petitions (you need 1,000 valid signatures) and put a campaign together.

    If Williams were to resign three months from now the judges would appoint his replacement, but it would be too late for that person to compete in the Democratic primary.

    The new DA would then have two options. One would be to convince the party’s nominee to vacate the post, and then persuade the party’s ward leaders to select himself as a replacement candidate.

    Harvey said the notion that a candidate who’d fought and won the nomination would step aside for a someone chosen by judges is “an Alice in Wonderland scenario.”


    The other option would be to run for DA as an independent candidate against the Democratic and Republican nominees — the longest of long shots.

    The bottom line: any judge that wants to DA will have to join the scrum and battle the other challenges in the May 16 primary.

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