It is such a simple proposition that it is difficult to imagine that it took a United States Supreme Court decision to have to resolve it: of course a defendant’s constitutional rights are violated when one of his appeals in a death penalty case is heard by a panel that includes the same man who helped to prosecute him. To co-opt John Roberts’ timeless analogy– it would be like the manager of a baseball team walking over to home plate in extra innings to call balls and strikes. No one would call that fair or just.
But until Thursday, evidently, there was no Supreme Court precedent that directly held that an appellate judge has an obligation to recuse himself from a case in which he once, as a prosecutor, had a ‘significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision.” Now there is. So if Williams v. Pennsylvania, decided Thursday in a 5–3 vote, does nothing else (and it doesn’t do nearly enough) it puts this basic premise on the books and into black-letter law.
That means that capital defendants in the future may not be prejudiced the way Terrance Williams was prejudiced by the courts of Pennsylvania. It means that some other judge out there, some other former prosecutor, will think twice and then do the opposite of what Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille did in this case, which was to stubbornly stick around long enough to try to finish up in a robe what he had started decades earlier in an office when he first authorized a death penalty trial for Williams.
What is striking about the decision, then, is not that Justice Anthony Kennedy and the Court’s four liberals joined together to point out this blatant conflict of interest. What’s striking is how limited is the remedy they offered Williams in a case of such obvious misconduct—another hearing at the Pennsylvania Supreme Court but not another necessarily another sentencing hearing to correct the first one that was so terribly flawed. Williams still may be put to death despite being denied his constitutional rights.
More striking, still, is that the other three conservative justices, including the aforementioned Chief Justice, dissented from even this modest relief and that they did so by making a series of contorted arguments that turn Castille into the most ethical judge in the history of the Republic, someone capable of compartmentalizing the facts and law of a murder case with chilling precision. (Castille, for his part, as unrepentant as ever even in his retirement, late Thursday blasted the Court’s “liberals” for an “ill-thought out” decision.)
What both the majority and the dissenters failed to adequately address in their opinions was the gross injustice that brought the case to their doorstep to begin with. The case of Terrance Williams is the case of a young rape victim who after years of forced sodomy finally turned on his brutal attacker. It is a case in which a young man met his capital attorney on the day before his trial began. It is a case in which the victim’s history as a sexual predator was known by Castille’s deputy prosecutors but hidden from Williams’ attorneys at trial.
It is, at its essence, a case of profound prosecutorial misconduct that the state’s legal system for decades sought to hide, then justify. If Castille’s prosecutors had been honest with Williams’ attorneys at trial, either in the way they charged the case or in the way they handled the exculpatory evidence they had, it is quite likely that Williams long ago would have been given a life sentence, or a term sentence, and this whole costly battle would have been avoided. This is a case where the state cheated, and got caught, and then tried to paper over its cheating by relying on technical hurdles and judicial bias.
The inherent injustice of what happened to Williams didn’t seem to matter to Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, two of the dissenters. To them, Castille was right not to recuse himself because as chief justice he was being asked to decide hoary questions about successive habeas petitions filed by Williams’ current attorneys not core death penalty questions with which he had been involved. Justice Clarence Thomas took that dubious logic one step further, concluding that there was no “single” case in which Castille acted as both a prosecutor and a judge since the appeal was more in the manner of a “civil” proceeding.
Sometimes, the Supreme Court takes a complicated case and tries to make it simple. Sometimes it takes a simple case and tries to make it complicated. Ronald Castille should have recused himself the minute the Williams case came back around. The fact that he did not itself demonstrates a level of bias that no judge ever should bring to the bench. Castille is gone now, thankfully, and for unrelated reasons the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upon which he sat is a national disgrace. What prosecutors and state judges have done to Williams in this case is a disgrace, too, one that now has yet another chance to be remedied.
The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
Editor’s Note : The Brennan Center for Justice filed an amicus brief in this case at the Supreme Court, a filing Andrew Cohen had no role in drafting or reviewing.