When must a judge step aside from a case? Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will revisit this question during the Williams v. Pennsylvania oral argument.* The Court will consider whether Ronald Castille, the former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, should have heard the appeal of a man he sent to death row when he was Philadelphia’s head prosecutor. The case also showcases how politicized judicial elections impact criminal cases nationwide.
Terrance Williams was convicted of a homicide he committed at the age of 18. As the District Attorney of Philadelphia at the time, Castille personally authorized his staff to seek a death sentence in the case. He was also the ultimate supervisor of the prosecution team that, according to Williams, committed gross misconduct in failing to disclose evidence that Williams had been sexually abused as a child by the person he killed, and that this abuse was the motivation for the crime.
Williams’s most recent appeal came before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court when Ronald Castille was serving as chief justice. In order to win his seat on the court, Castille touted his success sending 45 criminal defendants, including Williams, to death row. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette noted, Castille “wears the statistic as a badge.” When asked to profess his position on the death penalty, Castille refused, explaining that if he did so explicitly, he would have to step aside from all death cases. He instead responded: “I can certainly say I sent 45 people to death row as District Attorney of Philadelphia. [Voters] sort of get the hint.”
Evidence of Castille’s conflict of interest abounds. He oversaw the team seeking a death sentence for Williams and relied on his success acquiring a death verdict in his campaign for the bench. Ultimately, Castille refused to step aside from hearing Williams’s case and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated his death sentence, which had been vacated by a lower court.
While the combined facts in Williams are extreme, the case also raises broader questions about the fairness afforded criminal defendants who appear before elected judges.
It is not unusual for candidates’ law enforcement bona fides to play a prominent role in their run for judicial office. Television advertising has become a staple in judicial elections and these ads are increasingly focused on candidate’s records in criminal cases. In the 2013–14 election cycle, 56 percent of the television ads in supreme court elections discussed candidate’s records in criminal cases, either attacking candidates for being “soft on crime” or touting them as “tough on crime.”
A number of such ads ran in Pennsylvania’s 2015 Supreme Court election. The Republican State Leadership Committee ran an ad asserting that two candidates, Anne Covey and Judy Olson, “deliver on keeping violent criminals behind bars where they belong, rejecting early releases for rapists, child predators, and repeat violent criminals.” Another Pennsylvania ad, sponsored by Pennsylvanian’s for Judicial Reform, attacked candidate Michael George, saying he “routinely handed out lenient sentences” and that “one was to a man that raped a three year old girl.”
Tough on crime ads are particularly troubling when they involve capital cases. In 2014, three Tennessee Supreme Court justices fought to keep their seats in a bitter and expensive race. Responding to criticism that they were “liberal on crime,” the justices sponsored a TV ad announcing that they had “upheld nearly 90 percent” of death sentences that came before them.
But what impact do these campaign dynamics have on criminal defendants, like Terrance Williams, whose liberty, and lives, are in the hands of elected judges?
Recent research indicates that re-election pressures have a measurable impact on judges’ rulings in criminal cases, to the detriment of defendants. Studies of judicial decisions across the country have found that the closer judges are to re-election, the longer sentences they impose and the more likely they are to affirm death sentences. Whether a defendant lives or dies is therefore determined, in part, by the decision-maker’s proximity to re-election.
Given the centrality of criminal justice issues in judicial campaigns, the fact that a judge touted his record on the campaign trail may not alone be enough to remove him from a case. But the increased evidence that campaign dynamics are impacting judges’ subsequent decision-making means it cannot be ignored either.
Judicial review should not be an opportunity for a “tough-on-crime” judge to turn campaign rhetoric into reality. Terrance Williams must be able to escape the judgment of the man who bragged about sending him to die.
Kate Berry serves as counsel in the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.
*The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief in support of Williams in the case.