On June 9th, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Williams v. Pennsylvania. In doing so, the SCOTUS overturned a ruling of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, holding that a Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice should had recused himself from ruling on a case in which he had prior involvement as a district attorney.
In 1984, the defendant Williams murdered a man who had offered he and his friend a ride home. Williams’s friend originally testified that the murder was committed in the course of a robbery, which the prosecution used as an aggravating circumstance in in the murder. The prosecutor for the case then sought permission from her superiors to pursue the death penalty, and the district attorney at the time, Ronald Castille, approved the request. Williams was sentenced to death, but in 2012, Williams’ friend told Williams’ lawyers that he had provided false testimony at trial, and that the murder was actually the result of a tumultuous romantic relationship between Williams and the victim. The false testimony was provided as part of a deal for Williams’ friend, and it was later revealed that the prosecution had suppressed exculpatory evidence and engaged in “prosecutorial gamesmanship.” Williams then filed a petition pursuant to the PCRA with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, which stayed his execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing. The Commonwealth then submitted an emergency application to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking to vacate the stay of execution.
At this time, Castille was now Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. Knowing this, Williams filed a motion asking Castille to recuse himself, which Castille refused. The PA Supreme Court then vacated Williams’ stay of execution and reinstated his death sentence by a unanimous ruling. The Supreme Court of the United States then granted certiorari.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court held that Castille’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Justice Kennedy explained 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 involving the defendant’s case. Indeed, the Court expressed concerns about whether a former prosecutor could be completely impartial in a case that could either affirm or invalidate a ruling which he had previously worked to secure. Because of this, neither the passage of time nor the procedural history between Castille’s involvement as a prosecutor and the subsequent case in which he served as a judge did not release him from his obligation to recuse himself.
Further, the Court held that a judge’s unconstitutional failure to recuse constitutes structural error that is not amenable to harmless-error review, regardless of whether that judge’s vote was dispositive of the result. Indeed, the Court reasoned that judges and justices try to persuade each other to their point of view, and the fact that Castille’s vote was not dispositive of the result does not mean that he did not persuade other justices to his point of view when he should not have been participating at all. Thus, it was possible that Williams received an unfair ruling due to impermissible bias on the part of Castille. Because of this, the Court vacated his sentence and remanded the case.
If you’d like to read the Supreme Court’s opinion in its entirety, click here.
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