Disqualification reprise

This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will again decide whether a state supreme court justice should have disqualified himself from a case — just over 6 years after it defined the objective and reasonable standard for disqualification necessary to implement due process and noted the difficulty of judges’ inquiring into their own “subjective motives and purposes in the ordinary course of deciding a case.”  In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868 (2009), reversing a decision of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, the Court had held that, where campaign contributions from the principal of one of the parties “had a significant and disproportionate influence” on the election of one of the justices on the state court, the risk of actual bias was “sufficiently substantial” to require that justice’s disqualification under the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Campaign conduct is one of the grounds for the disqualification argument in the new case the Court will hear after granting a petition for writ of certiorari from a decision in a capital criminal case from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in Williams v. Pennsylvania.  The pleadings before the Court are at http://www.scotusblog.com/case-files/cases/williams-v-pennsylvania/.

In 1986, Ronald Castille was the elected district attorney in Philadelphia where Williams was convicted of murder and robbery and sentenced to death.  In 2012, under the Post-Conviction Relief Act, a trial court granted Williams a stay of execution and awarded a new penalty hearing after finding the trial prosecutors from the district attorney’s office had withheld exculpatory evidence.  The state appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court where Castille was now Chief Justice; he denied Williams’s motion to recuse the same day it was filed and also denied his request that the motion be heard by the full court.  Thus, then-Chief Justice Castille (he retired in 2014) participated in the decision of a unanimous court that vacated the order for a new trial and reinstated the death penalty, finding that the petition for post-conviction relief had been untimely and did not meet the “governmental interference” exception to the timeliness requirement.  Williams v. Commonwealth, 105 A.3d 1234 (Pennsylvania 2014).

In his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Williams argued that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments are violated when a state supreme court justice declines to recuse himself from a capital case in which he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment in his prior capacity as elected district attorney and even though he had been district attorney through the trial and initial appeal.  In addition, the petition argued, the Chief Justice’s disqualification was required because, during his campaign for the state supreme court, he had “expressed strong support for capital punishment, with reference to the number of defendants he had ‘sent’ to death row,” including Williams.

The Court also agreed to take a second question presented by the petition:  “Are the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments violated by the participation of a potentially biased jurist on a multimember tribunal deciding a capital case, regardless of whether his vote is ultimately decisive?”

In a completely unrelated development coincidentally involving a member of the same court, the Pennsylvania Judicial Conduct Board confirmed that “it has recently received materials from the Attorney General regarding emails involving Justice [Michael] Eakin and that it has commenced a new investigation in those matters.”  The e-mails, sent or received between Justice Eakin’s Yahoo account and attorneys in the Attorney General’s office, contain, “racial, misogynistic pornography” and a joke about a woman who was beaten by her husband, according to the Attorney General.  The Board’s press release notes that it had already conducted an investigation in 2014 “into allegations regarding inappropriate emails self-reported” by Justice Eakin and that previous complaint had been dismissed “based on information then available to the Board.”

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