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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.”


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