Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams’ sudden guilty plea and resignation Thursday means 88 judges will chose a new district attorney, but it won’t be the political plum it might have been.
By state law, a vacancy in the district attorney’s office is filled by the Board of Judges, composed of all the city’s Common Pleas judges. That can be a golden political opportunity.
In 1991, then-Judge Lynne Abraham was chosen by her fellow jurists to fill a vacancy, giving her the chance to run for DA two years later as an incumbent. She never lost an election for the office, and served 19 years.
The judges could now choose someone for DA who could run this fall, but he or she would have to run as an independent, since the Republican and Democratic nominees are already in place.
Election lawyer Adam Bonin said there’s a catch.
“That person would have to not be a member of one of the two political parties as of mid-April of this year, a month before the primary,” Bonin said. “If you’re still registered as a Republican or Democrat right now, you cannot run as an independent in the fall.”
That requirement and the fact that it’s hard to win as an independent mean this choice will probably be in office just for the few months remaining in Williams’ term.
I asked Common Pleas President Judge Sheila Woods-Skipper whether the judges would make a quick pick. She said there’s a process they follow for appointments.
“A committee of the Board of Judges will be convened to determine the process and to solicit and accept applications for the opening,” she said.
After the committee reviews the applications, the judges will meet privately for a vote, and the winner is district attorney — at least for a while.
Who’s in the running?
The fact that this will likely be a short-term gig means it will probably not attract a big pool of heavyweight candidates.
A simple course might be to select Kathleen Martin, Williams’ first assistant, who’s been running the office while he was under indictment.
She held a news conference Thursday to say the men and women of the DA’s office have remained committed to their mission and will keep their focus.
When I asked if she’d be interested in staying in charge if the judges wanted her, she said she’s available.
“I’m proud of the work I’ve done and will continue to do so if so asked,” she said, standing in front of her senior staff. “And with the help of everyone and their experience behind me, we will do so diligently if that’s what’s appropriate.”
I asked Bonin if he thought Martin was a likely pick for the judges.
“On the one hand, there would be continuity. There would be no disruption,” Bonin said. “At the same time, Martin was put in place by Seth Williams, and if they just believe that fresh eyes are warranted here and a complete break from the Williams era, then that’s what they’ll do.”
The process is likely to take at least a few weeks.
Meanwhile Democratic candidate Larry Krasner and Republican Beth Grossman are on the ballot for the Nov. 7 election.