Matthew T. Mangino
June 10, 2016
In a stunning rebuke of a former chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that a judge who had significant, personal involvement in a case during his previous role as a prosecutor must recuse himself when the case comes before the bench.
Former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille was the district attorney of Philadelphia in 1986. Terrance Williams was tried for the robbery and murder of Amos Norwood. Castille, as the district attorney, was the final word on whether his office would seek the death penalty. He authorized seeking the death penalty and his office was successful, Williams was convicted and sentenced to death.
After numerous tries to get his conviction overturned, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, found that prosecutors in Castilles office had failed to turn over evidence to Williams lawyer, and she vacated the death sentence five days before Williams was scheduled to be executed.
The case made its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. At the time, Castille was chief justice. Williams moved to have Castille recuse himself from the case. The case dealt with a misconduct charge against his office; Castille as the district attorney had the sole authority to seek the death penalty against Williams; and he boasted as a candidate for the Supreme Court that he had sent 45 people to death row as district attorney, including Williams.
Castille refused to recuse himself and ultimately joined the opinion that reversed Sarminas decision.
Castille even wrote separately to make clear what he thought of the lower courts ruling. In an opinion laced with withering criticism, Castille suggested Sarminas court had become unmoored from its lawful duty and accused Williams lawyers of sidestepping procedural rules and pursuing an obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda.
A defiant Castille told The Associated Press before the U.S. Supreme Court argument, In Pennsylvania, we leave it up to the judges personal conscience ... Ive always been confident that I can be fair and impartial.
The U.S Supreme Court did not agree.
The Court made clear in a 1975 decision that recusal is required when the likelihood of bias on the part of the judge is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.
Williams argued that Castilles actions violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by acting as both accuser and judge in his case. The Court was left with this fundamental question was Castilles authorization to seek the death penalty against Williams significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision?
The Court concluded that it was and Castilles failure to recuse himself from Williamss case presented an unconstitutional risk of bias.
Anthony Kennedy, writing for a 5-3 majority, ruled This risk so endangered the appearance of neutrality that his participation in the case must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.
Castille remains defiant. After the high courts ruling, Castille said the decision was an overreaction and would have wide-ranging effects throughout the country.
Any county judge who had something to do with a murder case where they didnt try it, but merely were administrators, those cases could all be in jeopardy by the lack of analysis by the Supreme Court, Castille told The Legal Intelligencer. I think its extremely short-sighted by the court.
Castilles prediction of an onslaught of challenges to prior convictions as a result of the courts decision may well be overstated. As Justice Kennedy pointed out Pennsylvania, as most states, has a Code of Judicial Conduct that deals specifically with recusal, The fact that most jurisdictions have these rules in place suggests that todays decision will not occasion a significant change in recusal practice.
However, this case is a pointed reminder that sometimes those rules can be inadvertently violated or intentionally ignored.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book, The Executioners Toll, 2010, was recently released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.
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