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Williams v. Pennsylvania, USSC No. 15-5040, cert. granted 10/1/15

Questions Presented:

1. Are the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments violated where the presiding Chief Justice of a State Supreme Court declines to recuse himself in a capital case where he had personally approved the decision to pursue capital punishment against Petitioner in his prior capacity as elected District Attorney and continued to head the District Attorney’s Office that defended the death verdict on appeal; where, in his State Supreme Court election campaign, the Chief Justice expressed strong support for capital punishment, with reference to the number of defendants he had “sent” to death row, including Petitioner; and where he then, as Chief Justice, reviewed a ruling by the state postconviction court that his office committed prosecutorial misconduct under Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83 (1963), when it prosecuted and sought death against Petitioner?

2. 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?

Lower court opinion: Commonwealth v. Williams, 105 A.3d 1234 (Pa. 2014)


Scotusblog page

The Questions Presented spell out the basic facts about the claim; more startling details are provided in Williams’s cert petition. (UPDATE: 1/4/16: For more background, see this N.Y. Times piece by legal reporter Adam Liptak.

As for the legal issues, this case will call on the court to clarify how its holding in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868, 881 (2009), that due process requires an “objective” inquiry into judicial bias, applies to a state supreme court justice who joins in ruling on a case in which he is alleged to be biased because of his role in an earlier stage of the case. Also, in Williams’s case, the justice who’d been the DA when Williams was being prosecuted denied the recusal motion without explanation and refused Williams’s request to refer it to the full court; thus, the Court may also address whether the challenged judge alone decides on recusal, or whether the court on which the judge sits gets the final say. Finally, the case will also allow the court to answer a question left open by Aetna Life Insurance Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813 (1986)—namely, whether the Constitution is violated by the bias, appearance of bias, or potential bias of one member of a multimember tribunal where that member doesn’t cast the deciding vote.

Beyond the generally important and recurring issue of judicial bias, astute readers will recognize the bearing the decision on this case could have on our own supreme court’s ongoing recusal agonisties. Though most recently the court has been obsessed with recusal issues arising when justices are deciding cases in which their campaign contributors are parties (e.g., here and here), not too long ago Dimitri Henley asked Justice Roggensack to recuse herself because she was on the court of appeals panel that rejected his co-defendant’s appeal. Justice Roggensack refused, and a majority of the full court concluded it didn’t have the authority to disqualify a fellow justice. That episode is described more fully here, here, and here. It will be interesting to see whether the Court’s decision in this case undermines or supports the handling of Henley’s recusal request.

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