SCOTUS Vacates Death Sentence, Says Defendant’s Due Process Violated

June 10, 2016


SCOTUS Vacates Death Sentence, Says Defendant’s Due Process Violated

Thursday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-3 decision “that judges must recuse themselves from cases in which they played a significant previous role in prosecuting the person before them,” writes Robert Barnes for The Washington Post. The case, Williams v. Pennsylvania, examined whether or not Ronald Castille, a former Pennsylvania Supreme Court justice, should have recused himself given the fact that “as a prosecutor 30 years earlier Castille had made the decision to seek the death penalty against” defendant Terrance Williams. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the majority opinion, said that “where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level.” In a statement after the decision, Brennan Center Counsel Matthew Menendez said the ruling “held a firm line in favor of due process.” The court, he said, highlighted the fact that “the public must have confidence that our legal system provides a fair trial before an unbiased judge.”

Trump Says Judge Has Conflict of Interest Due to Mexican Heritage

Recent comments by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, asserting that Judge Gonzalo Curiel could not hear a case about Trump University due to his Mexican heritage, have been criticized by some members of the Republican Party, according to Benjy Sarlin, Katy Tur, and Ali Vitali for MSNBC. The authors write that Trump claimed “his plan to build a wall along the Mexican border to crack down on illegal immigration would color Curiel’s approach to the case.” Although Trump later commented that the statement was “misconstrued as a categorical attack against people of Mexican heritage,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) called the comment “the textbook definition of a racist comment.” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said “[i]t’s time to quit attacking various people that you competed with or various minority groups in the country and get on message.” Neither Ryan nor McConnell revoked their endorsement of his candidacy, a strategy the authors describe as “a divided front.” The comments did, however, prompt Senator Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) to revoke his endorsement, saying “[t]hat was too racist and bigoted for me.”


Use of Recall for Judges Uncommon

After California Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky sentenced Brock Turner, a Stanford University student convicted of sexual assault, to six months in prison, many called for his recall. Eli Hager of The Marshall Project writes that “recalling a sitting judge is almost unheard of, both in California and nationally.” In fact, “only eight [states] allow [recall] for judges — because the judicial branch is traditionally seen as deserving protection from popular whim, political pressure, or, as in this case, the increasing influence of social media.” Most states allow a judge to be recalled only “if the judge has committed some act of malfeasance — taking bribes, drunkenness in court, etc. — or nonfeasance — skipping hearings, struggling in old age to keep up.” Advocates for recalling Judge Perskey claim that “in a time of great distrust of the criminal justice system…the public should have more direct ways of holding its elected representatives accountable.” However, Hager notes the Brennan Center has reported “attacks on judges for issuing ‘lenient sentences’ and ‘failing to protect women and children’ have the longer-term effect of making judges more likely to rule against innocent defendants and more likely to affirm death sentences.” Alicia Bannon, Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center, writes that this “risks exacerbating pressures to decide cases based on political...expediency, rather than on their understanding of the law.”


Rubio Blocks Judicial Appointment of Nomination He Recommended

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) returned blue slips for three judicial vacancies in his state, a move that indicates his support of the nominees, but decided not to return a blue slip for Mary Barzee Flores, effectively blocking her appointment, writes Jay Weaver for the Miami Herald. Weaver reports that Rubio’s office issued a statement saying “[d]uring the Obama administration, there has been an unfortunate trend toward the judiciary playing a more active role in policy-making, which is why Senator Rubio would rather see a judgeship remain vacant than to fill it with the wrong person for a lifetime.” Critics argue that he is blocking the nomination over “extreme political partisanship.” These critics include members of Rubio’s own party. Miami lawyer Tom Spencer, a Republican, asked: “If Mary Barzee Flores was the ‘wrong person’ involved in ‘judicial policy making,’ why did [Rubio] affirm the selection of his nominating commission and submit her name to the president?” Former U.S. Attorney Marcos Jimenez added that “[i]t’s unfortunate that Mary has apparently fallen victim to the extreme political partisanship that is plaguing federal judicial nominations.”

NEW RESOURCE: This week the Brennan Center released a new initiative, Rethinking Judicial Selection for the 21st Century. Resources include an interactive map detailing selection methods across the country, a white paper that describes the problems facing state courts today and reflects on the values that should be advanced by judicial selection, and a report that provides historical perspective on judicial selection reform.