At first it was frigid. There were flurries and then there was confusion, but by the end of the week, things were beginning to thaw.
That could describe weather reports over the past two weeks, but it could also describe the first two weeks of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s tenure.
On Jan. 5, after less than five days in office, Krasner asked dozens of seasoned prosecutors to leave the office. Following the ensuing flurry of resignations, there was some confusion at the courthouse. But later in the week Krasner slowly began to unveil his new appointees and office structure, and, by Friday, many in the defense bar were offering warmer regards toward the new administration.
“Larry was elected with a promise of bringing in sweeping change, and change is hard,” Ben Waxman, a spokesman for the office, said. “I think things are moving in the right direction now that there’s a new leadership team in place.”
Although some are taking positive signs from the past week and others say they have some lingering concerns, almost everyone who spoke with The Legal is treating the situation much like they would the weather in January in Pennsylvania—with a wait-and-see approach.
“Time will tell whether this is to the benefit or detriment,” Stradley Ronon Stevens & Young chairman William Sasso, who has been a part of several transition teams, said. “But you have to give the boss the benefit of the doubt, and give him time to prove his point.”
The source of the greatest concern from those in the defense bar stems from the dismissal of more than 30 DA’s office personnel in one day.
According to most court watchers, the number of people Krasner fired was on the higher end when it comes to transitions.
Although Krasner has often pointed to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro as having fired a larger number of attorneys during his transition, news reports at the time indicate Shapiro only fired six people during his first week in office. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office declined to comment, but, according to sources familiar with Shapiro’s transition, who declined to be named for the story, the news reports were accurate.
But, more than the number, attorneys mostly took issue with the manner in which the shake-up occurred.
News of the shake-up broke as a snowstorm and freezing temperatures bore down on Philadelphia, leading the courts to close early, and Krasner did not speak publicly about the firing until four days later.
Several attorneys said they were disappointed at how the timing led to dramatic photos being published in the local media showing career prosecutors carrying boxes of their belongings out the door for the last time. One attorney familiar with administrative transitions said such a dramatic shake-up can create “an atmosphere of chopping off heads,” which can potentially lead to morale problems.
Also, in the immediate aftermath of the firings, there was confusion within the defense bar, as several criminal defense attorneys said they were left wondering who they would be dealing with the following Monday. At least three prosecutors were also widely, and incorrectly, reported to have been fired during the shake-up. Krasner’s team has not yet released the names of those who have been dismissed.
Although many said their cases were not affected by the change, one attorney said some ADAs appeared to be “overworked” in the wake of the firings, and at least one homicide trial that had been set to begin Jan. 8 had to be pushed back several months because the prosecutor assigned to the case had been one of those asked to leave.
Several attorneys said they were left scratching their heads over why the prosecutor had not been allowed to stay on at least until the trial was finished, and one defense attorney, who declined to be named, said the swift changes possibly hinted at an “ideological zeal” that could be a cause for lingering concern. The attorney said the move showed a potential disregard for the normal course of business, which could needlessly trip up the administration and leave it open for criticism and speculation.
“When your focus is on ideological issues you tend to forget about what you need to do to get the job done,” the attorney said.
As Krasner’s tumultuous second week in office progressed, he announced several key appointments that most attorneys agreed said helped to settle their nerves.
On Tuesday, Krasner announced that he had appointed Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis attorney Nancy Winkelman as the interim supervisor of the office’s law department, which handles appeals.
“That’s a very good hire,” Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel lawyer and former state Attorney General Walter Cohen said of Winkelman, echoing a sentiment repeated by several court watchers.
Two days later Krasner announced former Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Carolyn Engel Temin as his second-in-command. Temin has been widely regarded as a good choice for that role, and someone who, one defense lawyer said, “will come at it more practically.”
Krasner campaigned on a promise of bringing sweeping progressive change to the office. Although some defense attorneys questioned how far he will be able to realistically push that agenda given the day-to-day needs of the office, many agreed that there are many significant and practical reforms that Krasner can easily achieve.
“If there is a top-down effort to reform and make sure prosecutors are following the rules under Brady [v. Maryland], if that permeates the office, it will be a good thing for the city,” one defense attorney said. “If more faith is restored to the institution, that is a good thing for everybody.”