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SCOTUS Creates Narrow Recusal Requirement in Pa. Capital Case

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Getting a judge removed from a case is no easy task. After all, under federal law, it is up to the judges themselves to determine, on their own, whether a conflict of interest could lead to their impartiality being questioned. Other than a judge's own conscience, there's little to require recusals in cases of potential judicial bias.

But the Supreme Court took a small step towards establishing some hard and fast constitutional rules yesterday. The case that brought about the change was about as stark an example of judicial conflict of interest as one can get. Terrence Williams, a man sentenced to death for the brutal killing of a church deacon, appealed his conviction to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, only to have it heard by that court's chief justice who had overseen his prosecution decades earlier.

Both Prosecutor and Judge

Terrence Williams was, according to NPR's Nina Totenberg, "a violent teenager who from an early age was the victim of rampant and vicious beatings at home and sexual abuse from neighbors, older men, even a middle school teacher." At 18, he was convicted of murdering a man in Philadelphia.

The district attorney who oversaw his prosecution at the time was Ronald Castille. Castille personally authorized prosecutors to seek the death penalty for Williams and would later end up on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, in part because of a "tough on crime" career during which he sent 45 men to death row.

Five days before Williams was to be executed in 2012, a state court judge stayed his execution because of prosecutorial misconduct. The prosecution, the court determined, had withheld mitigating evidence showing that the murdered man had molested Williams as a child.

The state appealed that ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Castille then sat as chief justice. Castille refused to recuse himself and the court unanimously reinstated Williams' death sentence.

A Constitutional Requirement to Recuse

Castille's failure to recuse himself violated the Constitution's Due Process Clause, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday, in a 5-to-1 decision, with the majority opinion authored by Justice Kennedy. It is the first time the Court has ruled that there are times when the Constitution requires judicial recusal.

But the ruling is narrow. "Under the Due Process Clause," the Court explained, "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." That's true even when 30 years have passed between the involvement and later review.

The rule announced by the Court and the remedy (remand to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, for reconsideration by judges who may have already been tainted by Castille's potential bias) "seem artificially narrow," as Richard M. Re notes on SCOTUSblog. The effects, too, will be small. Many states, after all, already have more robust recusal requirements, and situations such as Castille's are not common. But the logic is broad and may, Re argues, mark the beginning of a constitutional recusal doctrine.

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