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Williams v. Pennsylvania (Amicus Brief)

The Brennan Center filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to consider the absence of a procedure for seeking independent review of Petitioner’s recusal motion as a factor contributing to a violation of due process.

Published: June 9, 2016

Recent Updates:

On June 9, the Supreme Court vacated Terrance Willi­am’s death sentence and remanded his case to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania for a new hear­ing. In their decision, the court held 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.”

And that:

“An uncon­sti­tu­tional fail­ure to recuse consti­tutes struc­tural error that is ‘not amen­able’ to harm­less-error review, regard­less of whether the judge’s vote was dispos­it­ive.”

Back­ground:

On Octo­ber 1, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear Willi­ams v. Pennsylvania, an appeal from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concern­ing judi­cial bias in a death penalty case. The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania rein­stated Peti­tioner Terrance Willi­ams sentence of death after he had received post-convic­tion relief from a lower court. In his peti­tion, Willi­ams contends that Chief Justice Castille of the state supreme court should have recused himself from his case and that not doing so viol­ated the Eighth and Four­teenth Amend­ments. The case was heard on Febru­ary 29.

The case presents two ques­tions to the Court:

  1. Whether the Eighth and Four­teenth Amend­ments are viol­ated when a state supreme court chief justice declines to recuse himself from a capital case, where, accord­ing to Peti­tioner:
  • Chief Justice Castille, in his prior capa­city as the District Attor­ney of Phil­adelphia, had person­ally approved Pennsylvani­a’s decision to pursue capital punish­ment against the defend­ant and contin­ued to head the prosec­utors’ office that defen­ded the death verdict on appeal;
  • The decision being appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court vacated Peti­tion­er’s death sentence based on find­ings that the trial prosec­utor, who was super­vised by Chief Justice Castille, commit­ted miscon­duct; and
  • Chief Justice Castille had publicly expressed strong support for capital punish­ment during his judi­cial elec­tion campaign by refer­en­cing the number of defend­ants he had “sent” to death row, includ­ing the defend­ant in the case now before the court.
  1. Whether the Eighth and Four­teenth Amend­ments are viol­ated by the parti­cip­a­tion of a poten­tially biased jurist on a multimem­ber tribunal decid­ing a capital case, regard­less of whether his vote was ulti­mately decis­ive.

The under­ly­ing opin­ion from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is avail­able here.

The Bren­nan Center’s Brief in Support of Peti­tioner

The Bren­nan Center for Justice and Justice at Stake filed an amicus curiae brief in support of Peti­tion­er’s argu­ment on Ques­tion One. Amici argued that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvani­a’s lack of a proced­ure for an inde­pend­ent review of recusal motions should be viewed as an addi­tional factor contrib­ut­ing to a viol­a­tion of Peti­tion­er’s right to due process.

Merits Briefs

Amicus Briefs