Friday, February 26, 2016

Problems continue for Pennsylvania Supreme Court, this time the U.S. Supreme Court is involved

Never mind that a sitting justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will go on trial for allegedly unethical behavior, the Court's former Chief Justice Ronald Castille will have controversial case he prosecuted as district attorney of Philadelphia and then ruled on as a Supreme Court Justice reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Castille voted to reverse a lower court decision that gave relief to a criminal defendant whom the lower court concluded was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. The Chief Justice even wrote separately to make clear just how wrong he thought the lower court decision was, wrote Brianne J. Gorod, chief counsel of the Constitution Accountability Center on the American Constitution Society website. 
Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument in Williams v. Pennsylvania, in which the Court has been asked to decide whether the Pennsylvania Chief Justice’s decision to participate in that case was lawful. In a Term with a huge number of blockbuster cases (not to mention a new Supreme Court vacancy), Williams hasn’t been getting a great deal of attention. But it should. It’s a case that will test the Supreme Court’s commitment to the fundamental principle, recognized by James Madison at the nation’s founding, that “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause.” And it’s a case that will determine whether the American people can feel confident that they will get what the Supreme Court has said the Constitution’s Due Process Clause requires: “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal.”
Gorod writes, the issue Castille was asked to decide in this case is whether the trial prosecutor in Williams’s case—that is, an attorney on Castille’s staff and for whose conduct Castille was ultimately responsible—suppressed evidence in violation of the law, as the lower court found. An affirmance of the lower court’s order would necessarily impugn the integrity and reputation of the office Castille led and thus his own reputation, as well. It is no insult to Castille to say that “‘under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,’ the interest ‘poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.’” For a judge with that level of personal interest in a case to participate in deliberations, potentially influence his colleagues’ votes, and then vote on the case himself, creates not only the appearance of unfairness, but also the probability of it, both of which the Due Process Clause prohibits. As the Supreme Court has said, “to perform its high function in the best way, ‘justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.’”
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