Federal Courts and Nominations

Williams v. Pennsylvania: A True Case of Judicial Bias

By Christina Ford

When the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania, holding that a judge’s failure to recuse himself from a case in which he was previously involved violated the Constitution’s Due Process Clause, it was obviously a win for the convicted defendant. Moreover, by helping to ensure that our justice system is an impartial one, the decision was also a win for anyone who might one day find himself or herself in court.

The underlying facts in Williams represent an extraordinary example of judicial bias. In 2012, the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Ronald Castille, refused to recuse himself in a death penalty case in which he had “significant, personal involvement” during his tenure as District Attorney of Philadelphia. The defendant in that case was Terrence Williams. After his conviction and direct appeal, Williams alleged that Castille’s office had engaged in prosecutorial misconduct during the investigation of his case and his trial. After a post-conviction court agreed with Williams, the state appealed, sending the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where Ronald Castille was now the Chief Justice. The accusation of misconduct, if upheld on appeal, was one that would certainly affect Justice Castille’s reputation. Yet Justice Castille refused to recuse himself from the case and unsurprisingly found that his office had not engaged in misconduct, castigating Williams’s defense attorneys in the process.

Fortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court saw things differently. In a victory for precedent and the text and history of our Constitution, Justice Kennedy recognized the clear conflict of interest in this case, finding that Justice Castille’s involvement presented “an unconstitutional risk of bias.” Justice Kennedy’s opinion, joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, reaffirms what our Constitution’s Framers recognized: impartial adjudicators are essential to ensuring due process under law.

In his opinion for the Court, Justice Kennedy recognized the long-standing principle that one person cannot serve as both an accuser and adjudicator. As Justice Kennedy explained it, “no man can be a judge in his own case and no man is permitted to try cases where he has an interest in the outcome.” This idea, originally articulated in the 1955 case In re Murchison, is precedent, not “proverb,” despite what Chief Justice Roberts suggested in his dissenting opinion.

Moreover, the principle is not just precedent; it is central to the original meaning of our enduring Constitution’s promise of “due process.”  In fact, Justice Kennedy’s invocation of this language echoes back to James Madison in The Federalist Papers, who wrote “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause, because his interest would certainly bias his judgment, and, not improbably, corrupt his integrity.” Indeed, as we discussed in the amicus brief we filed in support of Williams, the notion of an impartial justice system was a fundamental pillar of our Constitution when our Founders adopted the Fifth Amendment, which promises that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Further, as we also discussed in our brief, our nation’s experiences with Reconstruction further solidified our commitment to an impartial justice system. This period in our history transformed our Constitution with the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments. The drafters of the Fourteenth Amendment, aware that black defendants and Unionists did not always receive fair and impartial trials in the South, hoped to reinvigorate confidence in the courts and secure the administration of justice with the Fourteenth Amendment. A main proponent of the Amendment, John Bingham, supported the Amendment for its promise of “due process of law . . . which is impartial, equal, exact justice.”

One hundred and fifty years later, the Supreme Court reaffirmed the promise of the Fourteenth Amendment in Williams. As Justice Kennedy acknowledged, impartiality in our justice system and the guarantees of due process are “necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and to the rule of law itself.” Williams is a victory not only for Terrence Williams and the American people.  It is also a win for Supreme Court precedent, for common sense, and for the text and history of our Constitution.