Federal Courts and Nominations

U.S. Justices Take a Look at Pennsylvania Supreme Court

By Matthew Mangino

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15-5040. Attorneys for Terrance Williams argued that former Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself from a 2014 case involving Williams.

Castille was the district attorney of Philadelphia in 1986 when Williams was sentenced to death. Nearly 29 years later, Castille—then on the state Supreme Court—joined in a unanimous decision reversing a trial judge’s decision to reverse Williams’ death sentence.

Shawn Nolan, who handles death-penalty appeals in the Federal Community Defender Office in Philadelphia, told The Associated Press before the argument, “It’s just not right.”

For his part, Castille said, “In Pennsylvania, we leave it up to the judge’s personal conscience . . . I’ve always been confident that I can be fair and impartial.”

Williams was convicted and sentenced to death for the robbery and murder of Amos Norwood. The Supreme Court affirmed Williams’ conviction and sentence, and he filed three petitions under the Post-Conviction Relief Act, all of which were denied and affirmed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Williams also petitioned for federal habeas relief, which was denied.

On his fourth try for post-conviction relief, Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge M. Teresa Sarmina, said prosecutors in Castille’s office had failed to turn over evidence of the abuse to Williams’ lawyer, and she vacated the death sentence five days before Williams was scheduled to be executed.

Williams moved to have Castille recuse himself from this case. He refused and ultimately joined the opinion that reversed Sarmina’s decision. Castille, in an opinion laced with withering criticism, suggested Sarmina’s court had become “unmoored from its lawful duty” and accused Williams’ lawyers of sidestepping procedural rules and “pursuing an obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda.”

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office argued that Castille played only a fleeting part in Williams’ prosecution, limited to signing off on the decision to seek the death penalty.

“His signature on that [capital case] memo, in January 1986, was his first, last, and only contact with this case,” prosecutors said during oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court.

A majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices voiced concern that Castille participated in the case. Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, “The judge here actually signed his name to the review of the facts and the decision to seek the death penalty.”

Justice Elena Kagan indicated Castille should have recused himself because he personally signed off on seeking the death penalty.

“He made the most important decision that could be made in this case,” Kagan said.

By deciding to judge the conduct of his own office in a case in which he was personally involved, Castille created a judicial conflict so obvious and so extreme that it violated the due process clause’s guarantee of an impartial justice system, wrote Brianne J. Gorod, chief counsel of the Constitutional Accountability Center, on the American Constitution Society website.

“Chief Justice Castille’s conduct deeply undermined the integrity of the judicial proceedings and trampled any notion of due process for Mr. Williams,” wrote Lawrence J. Fox in an amicus brief filed by the Ethics Bureau at Yale Law School.

Nearly seven years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on whether a judge should have recused himself.

The last time the court took up the issue of judicial was in 2009. In Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal, 556 U.S. 868 (2009), West Virginia Justice Brent Benjamin was asked, and refused, to recuse himself in a case in which one of the parties had contributed $3 million to his election campaign. He voted with the majority, in favor of his contributor, reversing a jury verdict.

In analyzing a question of recusal, the court asks not whether the judge is actually, subjectively biased, but whether the average judge in his position is “likely” to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional “potential for bias.” This unconstitutionally high risk of bias exists where “‘experience teaches that the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decision maker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.'”

Applied to the facts of Caperton, the U.S. Supreme Court held that “there is a serious risk of actual bias—based on objective and reasonable perceptions—when a person with a personal stake in a particular case had a significant and disproportionate influence in placing the judge on the case by raising funds or directing the judge’s election campaign when the case was pending or imminent.”

The death penalty, like campaign contributions, can have an impact on the impartiality of the court. Data analyzed last month by Reuters found a strong correlation between the results in death-penalty cases and the way each state chooses its justices.

In states like Pennsylvania where high court judges are directly elected, justices rejected the death sentence in 11 percent of appeals compared to a 26 percent reversal rate in states where justices are appointed, Reuters reported.

Castille has always been a proponent of the death penalty. When he was running for a seat on the state Supreme Court, although prohibited from taking a position on specific issues, he would say, according to The New York Times, “I can certainly say I sent 45 people to death row as district attorney of Philadelphia,” adding that voters “sort of get the hint.”

In a scathing decision in September 2014, only months before the Williams decision, Castille took the Federal Community Defenders Office to task. “Death-penalty opponents, such as the Federal Community Defenders Office, can then redirect their efforts to the political arena, where they belong,” Castille said. “This court has a responsibility for the entire Pennsylvania judicial system, to ensure the delivery of swift, fair, and evenhanded justice in all cases.”

Castille wasn’t shy about lambasting Williams either as the argument before the high court approached. Castille said, “He [Williams] was actually a male prostitute . . . He was prostituting himself for money. This guy he killed was not the most upstanding individual, but he still took the guy’s life.”

As court observers wait on the high court’s decision, it is worth noting that Gov. Tom Wolf has vowed to grant a reprieve to every death-row inmate scheduled for execution in Pennsylvania.

Williams was the first to benefit by Wolf’s pledge. Even without the governor’s intervention executions are unlikely in Pennsylvania. The state has not carried out an involuntary execution in more than a half century. There has been three executions in Pennsylvania since 1978 and all three men volunteered to be executed.

A decision is expected this summer by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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