Supreme Court: Pennsylvania Chief Justice Cannot Rule on Death Penalty Case

AP Photo/Dave Martin
AP Photo/Dave Martin

WASHINGTON—In a 5-3 split decision, last Thursday the Supreme Court held that Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court cannot be part of deciding a convict’s case because 30 years ago he was one of the prosecutors involved with the original prosecution, creating an “impermissible risk” of bias that would violate due process.

Terrance Williams was convicted of brutally murdering a man in 1984. Williams was 18 at the time. Castille was district attorney of Philadelphia then and granted the lead prosecutor’s request to seek the death penalty. Williams was sentenced to death, and has been appealing that sentence in one way or another for almost three decades.

During those years, Castille eventually became the chief justice of his state’s supreme court. In Williams’s most recent appellate move, Castille was one of the votes against this petition. Williams argues that having Castille voting as a judge in any legal proceeding relevant to Williams’ conviction would violate the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, which provides that no state shall deprive “any person … of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

On June 9, the U.S. Supreme Court in Williams v. Pennsylvania sided with Williams, vacating (i.e., setting aside) the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s judgment, and remanding the case back to Pennsylvania’s highest court for new proceedings that exclude Castille (who has now retired anyway).

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for a five-justice majority: “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.”

“Due process entitles Terrance Williams to a proceeding in which he may present his case with assurance that no member of the court is predisposed to find against him,” Kennedy concluded.

Three justices dissented.

Chief Justice John Roberts, joined by Justice Samuel Alito, noted that after all Williams’s direct appeals, this was now his fifth petition for a writ of habeas corpus to escape his death sentence. “Williams does not allege that Chief Justice Castille had any previous knowledge of the contested facts at issue in the habeas petition, or that he previously made any decision on the questions raised by that petition,” Roberts wrote.

Roberts would, therefore, rule that due process is not violated here. However, he went on to note that even though the U.S. Constitution does not require Castille to recuse himself from this case, various Pennsylvania state ethics rules or court precedents might require him to do so anyway.

Justice Clarence Thomas dissented separately. “The specter of bias alone in a judicial proceeding is not a deprivation of due process. Rather than constitutionalize every judicial disqualification rule, the [U.S. Supreme] Court has left such rules to legislatures, bar associations, and the judgment of individual adjudicators,” he wrote.

Thomas also noted that this is now a civil post conviction legal process, rather than the criminal process itself, and that in civil proceedings the due process clause requires fewer procedural protections.

Thomas concluded:

This is not a case about the “accused.” It is a case about the due process rights of the already convicted. Whatever those rights may be, they do not include policing alleged violations of state codes of judicial ethics in post conviction proceedings. The Due Process Clause does not require any and all conceivable procedural protections that Members of this Court think “Western liberal democratic government ought to guarantee to its citizens.” I respectfully dissent.

Ken Klukowski is legal editor for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @kenklukowski.


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