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SCOTUS: Due process required recusal of justice who helped prosecute habeas petitioner

Williams v. Pennsylvania, USSC No. 15-5040, 2016 WL 3189529 (June 9, 2016), vacating and remanding Commonwealth v. Williams, 105 A.3d 1234 (Pa. 2014); Scotusblog page (includes links to briefs and commentary)

When he was district attorney of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille authorized a subordinate to seek a death sentence in Terrance Williams’s murder trial. Thirty years later, as Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Castille refused to recuse himself from the commonwealth’s appeal of Williams’ successful habeas petition, which alleged that the DA’s office had withheld exculpatory information contrary to Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963). The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled against Williams; SCOTUS now holds that Castille’s participation in that decision deprived Williams of due process.

The five-justice majority opinion, authored by Justice Kennedy, states its holding as follows:

[U]nder 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.

The court relies on In re Murchison, 349 U. S. 133, 136 (1955), for the proposition that “an unconstitutional potential for bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case.” (Slip op. at 6). Espousing “no doubt that the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice in the adversary process” and noting Castille’s personal involvement in that decision, (Slip op. at 9), the Court finds a due process violation here.

The Court’s formal reasoning is fairly cut-and-dried and emphasizes that the issue is not Castille’s subjective state of mind, but rather an objective question of the “appearance of bias.” (Slip op. at 1-2). Other portions of the opinion, though, highlight some facts that at least suggest actual bias on Castille’s part. The Court illustrates the dangers of permitting a former prosecutor to judge his or her own case by reference to the facts here:

The [lower] court determined that the trial prosecutor—Chief Justice Castille’s former subordinate in the district attorney’s office—had engaged in multiple, intentional Brady violations during Williams’s prosecution…. While there is no indication that Chief Justice Castille was aware of the alleged prosecutorial misconduct, it would be difficult for a judge in his position not to view the [lower] court’s findings as a criticism of his former office and, to some extent, of his own leadership and supervision as district attorney.

(Slip op. at 10). Earlier in the opinion, the Court quotes from Castille’s concurrence to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s denial of relief:

He lamented that the [lower] court had “lost sight of its role as a neutral judicial officer” and had stayed Williams’s execution “for no valid reason.” “[B]efore condemning officers of the court,” the chief justice stated, “the tribunal should be aware of the substantive status of Brady law,” which he believed the [lower] court had misapplied. In addition, Chief Justice Castille denounced what he perceived as the “obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” of Williams’s attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Office. [Lower] courts “throughout Pennsylvania need to be vigilant and circumspect when it comes to the activities of this particular advocacy group,” he wrote, lest Defender Office lawyers turn postconviction proceedings “into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow.”

(Slip op. at 4-5 (citations omitted)). The Court does not explain how these facts contribute to its analysis, but one wonders how the case might have come out had Castille protested a little less.

The Court’s other major holding concerns the remedy. Castille provided only one vote in his court’s unanimous decision against Williams. The majority concludes, however, that the participation of a biased jurist is a structural error not subject to harmless error analysis. After pointing out that the confidential nature of judicial deliberations makes it “neither possible nor productive to inquire whether the jurist in question might have influenced the views of his or her colleagues during the decisionmaking process,” (Slip op. at 12), Justice Kennedy shifts into lofty mode:

A multimember court must not have its guarantee of neutrality undermined, for the appearance of bias demeans the reputation and integrity not just of one jurist, but of the larger institution of which he or she is a part. An insistence on the appearance of neutrality is not some artificial attempt to mask imperfection in the judicial process, but rather an essential means of ensuring the reality of a fair adjudication. Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus to the rule of law itself.

(Slip op. at 13).

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, dissents, arguing that the precise issue before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court–whether the alleged Brady violation excused Williams’s untimeliness in petitioning–had nothing to do with the decision Castille had previously made to permit his subordinate to seek the death penalty. Justice Thomas dissents solo, arguing rather formally that Williams’s habeas petition and his criminal case are two separate proceedings, such that Castille could participate as prosecutor in one and judge in the other without raising any Due Process problem. He also advances the startling proposition that Due Process would not be offended even if Chief Justice Castille were actually biased against Williams, so long as he had no pecuniary interest in the case and had not (again, technically) served as the prosecutor in the very same proceeding. (Dissent at 6-15).

{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Jim Kroner June 11, 2016, 9:45 am

    Some of the comments seem to bode well for a remand in the Wisconsin John Doe appeal.

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