DURHAM — David Saacks, a prosecutor in the Durham District Attorney's Office for 15 years, would prefer to be in the courtroom than tending to administrative duties.
But for the next 16 months, the lawyer who shuns the political arena will be at the helm of a district attorney's office that was very much caught up in politics over the past year and a half.
Saacks, 43, was sworn in Friday as the county's third district attorney in a year.
Mike Nifong, disbarred this summer for his misconduct in the Duke lacrosse case, was the district attorney when 2007 began.
He was replaced in June by his predecessor, Jim Hardin, who temporarily left his job as a Superior Court judge to return to his old post. His assignment was to try to restore confidence and transparency to a tainted office.
On Thursday, Gov. Mike Easley tapped Saacks to serve as the county's top prosecutor until the November 2008 election.
"I will be here until the people of Durham elect who they want to be district attorney," Saacks said Friday after taking the oath of office.
A Cary resident, Saacks said he does not plan to run for the office in 2008. Not only does his Wake County residency exclude him from seeking office in Durham County, Saacks said he would rather leave the administrative duties to someone else.
"This isn't my passion or my love to do this," Saacks told a roomful of reporters and courthouse employees. "But I'm willing to do it. I'd just as soon be in the courtroom."
The appointment of Saacks won widespread praise in the legal community.
During his decade and a half in Durham, Saacks has built a reputation as a hardworking, fair-minded prosecutor.
"This is one of the greatest pleasures I've had," Judge Leon Stanback said during the swearing-in ceremony. "You are one of the prosecutors who understands the primary purpose of your job is to be objective."
Saacks said Friday that while much of Durham and the rest of the country focused on one case in the courthouse -- the gang-rape accusations against three former Duke lacrosse players -- the assistant district attorneys under Nifong tended to thousands of other cases.
"I think we have been disposing of cases in a very fair, efficient and right manner," Saacks said.
Hardin, who was sworn in Friday as a special Superior Court judge again, said he was relieved to find the district attorney's office in better order than he thought it would be during his two months there.
"I assumed, wrongly, that it was going to be chaotic, that policies were going to be disjointed," Hardin said. "I found that to a person everyone was absolutely and consistently dedicated."
Nifong, who was stripped of his law license after three decades in the Durham District Attorney's Office, was serving his one-day sentence for contempt of court at the nearby jail when Saacks was sworn in.
Tracey Cline, Mitchell Garrell and Brian Wilks, assistant district attorneys who had expressed interest in the job, were on hand for the ceremony in the fifth floor of the Durham County courthouse.
Freda Black, a former prosecutor who finished second to Nifong in the May 2006 Democratic primary, praised Easley's selection of Saacks. She said it puts others interested in seeking election on a level playing field.
Saacks, who was chief assistant district attorney under Nifong, has handled a wide range of cases since coming to the Durham office in 1992. Before then, he was an associate attorney with a private law firm in Dallas.
The Louisiana native holds an undergraduate degree from Louisiana State University and a law degree from Tulane University.
Saacks said he plans no personnel changes in the office. In a staff meeting Thursday, he had a message for other prosecutors.
"What I think we need to do is what we're doing already," Saacks said. "If that happens, the community will be with us."
Staff writer Anne Blythe can be reached at 932-8741 or firstname.lastname@example.org.