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Lynne Abraham applies for interim DA job in Philly

She wants an encore as the city's top prosecutor. A political controversy from 20 years ago may affect her chances.

Lynne Abraham, who served 18 years as Philadelphia’s district attorney, wants to return to the post for the rest of 2017.
Lynne Abraham, who served 18 years as Philadelphia’s district attorney, wants to return to the post for the rest of 2017.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / FILE

Lynne M. Abraham, best known in Philadelphia for her 18 years as district attorney, wants an encore.

Abraham on Thursday applied to serve as the city's interim district attorney. That application was addressed to Common Pleas Court Judge Frederica Massiah-Jackson, the chairwoman of a special committee to review and recommend candidates to the 88-member Board of Judges, which will vote Thursday.

In Philadelphia, complicated political histories can seem more like an inevitable circle than a linear timeline.

Twenty years ago this month, then-President Bill Clinton nominated Massiah-Jackson to a federal judgeship in Philadelphia.

Abraham was a key player in tanking that nomination, which would have made Massiah-Jackson the first African American female federal judge in the city.

Abraham and others accused Massiah-Jackson of being biased against police and prosecutors and lenient toward criminals, accusations the judge called an "unrelenting campaign of vilification and distortion" when she withdrew her nomination in March 1998.

Abraham on Thursday said that she was sure her application would draw interest from people familiar with the controversy but that she didn't have "the slightest hesitation" about seeking the post.

"I know Judge Jackson," she said. "I don't live in the past and I don't think she will either. It is a historical fact. I don't think this will impact her impartial judgement."

Massiah-Jackson on Thursday acknowledged the "buzz" in local legal and political circles about her reviewing Abraham's application. Massiah-Jackson is chairwoman of the three-judge special committee by virtue of her tenure as the court's longest-serving judge.

"Twenty years ago, it feels like yesterday," Massiah-Jackson said of her federal nomination. "I think all of us, including me, will vote for the best candidate."

Abraham said her application promised that she would take no salary or benefits for serving the 5½ months until a new district attorney takes over in January. The salary for that time would come to about $77,656.

Abraham has walked this road before. In 1991, she was a Common Pleas Court judge when District Attorney Ronald D. Castille resigned to run for mayor. Abraham won a close Board of Judges vote — 39-37 — to become district attorney and finish Castille's term.

She went on to win four full four-year terms, retiring in 2009. She was replaced by Seth Williams, who resigned last month just before pleading guilty in a federal corruption case.

Williams, who ran unsuccessfully against Abraham in the 2005 Democratic primary election for district attorney, is being held in the Federal Detention Center until his sentencing in October.

Abraham ran for mayor in the 2015 Democratic primary election, finishing third in the six-candidate field.

She said she initially decided against applying for the interim post but heard from many people who asked her to restore "the sense of mission and purpose" to the office after the Williams scandal.

"Just to get a firm and fair hand on the ship of state to make sure people know what our mission is and how to run the office in a good and productive way to serve the public," Abraham said, describing her short-term goal.

Abraham becomes at least the seventh applicant for the interim district attorney post. The deadline to apply is 2 p.m. Friday.

Joe Khan, a former city and federal prosecutor who finished second in the May 16 Democratic primary election for district attorney, said he filed his application Thursday afternoon.

Former Common Pleas Court Judge Paul Panepinto, who retired in March after 26 years on the bench, has also applied.

So did former Common Pleas Court Judge William Manfredi, who retired in December 2013 after 31 years on the bench.

Kathleen Martin, who as first deputy district attorney has been running the office since Williams resigned, said she applied Thursday afternoon.

"I believe it is in the best interest of the office that our business remain uninterrupted and that there be no learning curve so we can do that business seamlessly," Martin said.

An assistant to Senior Judge D. Webster Keogh, who worked in the District Attorney's Office for seven years and was appointed to the Common Pleas bench in 1991, said Thursday he planned to apply.

Former Common Pleas Judge Ben Lerner, who spent nearly 20 years on the bench before joining Mayor Kenney's administration in March 2016 to serve as deputy managing director for criminal justice, filed his application Thursday.

The Board of Judges will hear presentations from the applicants  Wednesday and vote  Thursday.

"The best part of this campaign is it's only a week long," Lerner joked.