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U.S. Supreme Court: Judge Should Not Rule on Case He Has Prosecuted

The decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania held a firm line in favor of due process. The Brennan Center wrote an amicus brief in the case, supporting Williams.

June 9, 2016

Washington, D.C. – Today the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a Pennsylvania man’s death sentence because a state supreme court justice who ruled in his appeal had authorized seeking the death penalty as district attorney decades earlier.

Terrance Williams’ sentence was overturned by the nation’s highest court, which declared by a 5–3 vote that Justice Ronald Castille’s participation in the case violated the defendants’ due process rights and that Castille should have stepped aside when the case came before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2014. Castille had approved seeking the death penalty for Williams in his former role as district attorney of Philadelphia. Williams’ defense team and multiple organizations arguing in Williams’ favor highlighted the conflicts in the case, focusing on a campaign ad from Castille which bragged about the number of people he had sent to death row, including their client.

“The  Court  now  holds  that  under  the  Due  Process  Clause  there  is  an  impermissible  risk  of actual  bias  when  a  judge  earlier  had  significant,  personal involvement  as  a  prosecutor  in  a  critical  decision  regarding the defendant’s case,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority opinion.

“The Supreme Court’s decision today held a firm line in favor of due process,” said Matthew Menendez, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, which wrote an amicus brief in support of Williams with pro bono support from the law firm Davis Polk. “There is no universe in which Terrance Williams receives a fair trial when the man who approved his death sentence — and bragged about doing so in a campaign ad — is allowed to adjudicate the appeal. Justice Castille should have stepped aside, and hopefully today’s decision will mean other judges will lean towards recusal if they find themselves in a similar situation. As the court said, the public must have confidence that our legal system provides a fair trial before an unbiased judge.”

Kennedy’s majority opinion was joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor. Justice Roberts wrote in dissent, joined by Justice Alito, arguing that Castille’s limited role as supervising prosecutor did not amount to significant involvement in the conviction. Justice Thomas also dissented, arguing that criminal trials and post-conviction habeas proceedings are different cases, and that in the latter, defendants have fewer constitutional rights.

The Brennan Center has focused on the increasing prevalence of “tough-on-crime” ads, noting that they comprised more than half of all ads in the 2013–14 election cycle. It has also documented extensive research on how reelection pressure can cause judges to dole out more punitive sentences.

Click here to learn more about background of the case.