In a 5-3 vote vacating a decision of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that denied post-conviction relief to a prisoner sentenced to death, the U.S. Supreme Court held that (1) the participation of a justice who had as the district attorney approved seeking the death penalty in the prisoner’s case violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and (2) the justice’s failure to recuse was not a harmless error even though his vote was not decisive in the state court’s 6-0 decision. Williams v. Pennsylvania (U.S. Supreme Court June 9, 2016).
In 1986, Terrance Williams was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death for the murder of Amos Norwood. At the time, Ronald Castille was the district attorney of Philadelphia. When the prosecutor had requested permission to seek the death penalty for Williams, Castille wrote at the bottom of the document: “Approved to proceed on the death penalty.”
For the next 26 years, Williams’s conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, state post-conviction review, and federal habeas review. In 2012, Williams filed a successive petition pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act based on new information from a witness who had previously refused to speak with Williams’s attorneys. The witness now disclosed that before trial he had informed the prosecutors that Norwood’s sexual relationship with Williams was the real motive for the murder but that the prosecutors had instructed him to falsely testify that Williams killed Norwood to rob him. The witness also admitted that the trial prosecutor had promised in exchange for his testimony to write a letter to the state parole board on his behalf, which was not disclosed at trial.
The post-conviction relief court found that the trial prosecutor had suppressed material, exculpatory evidence and engaged in “prosecutorial gamesmanship.” That court stayed Williams’s execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated that order and reinstated the death sentence for Williams. Chief Justice Castille joined the majority opinion and also authored a concurrence, stating that the post-conviction court had “lost sight of its role as a neutral judicial officer,” stayed Williams’s execution “for no valid reason,” and misapplied Brady and denouncing what he perceived as the “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” of Williams’s attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Office.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that “under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case.”
Bias is easy to attribute to others and difficult to discern in oneself. To establish an enforceable and workable framework, the Court’s precedents apply an objective standard that, in the usual case, avoids having to determine whether actual bias is present. The Court asks not whether a judge harbors an actual, subjective bias, but instead whether, as an objective matter, “the average judge in his position is ‘likely’ to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional ‘potential for bias.’”
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When a judge has served as an advocate for the State in the very case the court is now asked to adjudicate, a serious question arises as to whether the judge, even with the most diligent effort, could set aside any personal interest in the outcome. There is, furthermore, a risk that the judge “would be so psychologically wedded” to his or her previous position as a prosecutor that the judge “would consciously or unconsciously avoid the appearance of having erred or changed position.” In addition, the judge’s “own personal knowledge and impression” of the case, acquired through his or her role in the prosecution, may carry far more weight with the judge than the parties’ arguments to the court.
[Citations are omitted throughout this post.]
Rejecting the state’s characterization of Chief Justice Castille’s prior involvement as a brief administrative act limited to “the time it takes to read a one-and-a-half-page memo,” the Court stated it would “not assume that then-District Attorney Castille treated so major a decision as a perfunctory task requiring little time, judgment, or reflection on his part.” The Court also noted Chief Justice Castille’s own campaign “statement that he ‘sent 45 people to death rows’ as district attorney,” concluding his “willingness to take personal responsibility for the death sentences obtained during his tenure as district attorney indicate that, in his own view, he played a meaningful role in those sentencing decisions and considered his involvement to be an important duty of his office.”
In his dissent, which Justice Alito joined, Chief Justice Roberts concluded that the Due Process Clause did not require Chief Justice Castille’s recusal because “Williams does not allege that Chief Justice Castille had any previous knowledge of the contested facts at issue in the habeas petition, or that he had previously made any decision on the questions raised by that petition.” However, the dissent added, the absence of a due process obligation did not mean that it was appropriate for him not to recuse.
In his dissent, Justice Thomas argued that the Due Process Clause did not require Chief Justice Castille’s disqualification because the “petition for state postconviction relief did not continue (or resurrect) . . . [the] already final criminal proceeding.” Justice Thomas also stated that “[o]fficials in Pennsylvania are fully capable of deciding when their judges have ‘participated personally and substantially’ in a manner that would require disqualification without this Court’s intervention.”
The majority emphasized:
It is important to note that due process “demarks only the outer boundaries of judicial disqualifications.” Most questions of recusal are addressed by more stringent and detailed ethical rules, which in many jurisdictions already require disqualification under the circumstances of this case.
Pennsylvania does have such a “stringent and detailed” rule; the Pennsylvania code of judicial conduct provides that a judge shall disqualify himself if he “served as a lawyer in the matter in controversy . . . .” and if he “served in governmental employment, and in such capacity participated personally and substantially as a lawyer . . . concerning the proceeding . . . .” Williams had filed a motion for Chief Justice Castille to recuse himself or, if he declined to do so, to refer the recusal motion to the full court. As the U.S Supreme Court noted, however, Chief Justice Castille denied the motion – “without explanation.”