U.S. Supreme Court Holds Due Process Violation In Judicial Recusal Case; AAAL Filed Amicus Brief In Support of Prevailing Party

The American Academy of Appellate Lawyers filed an amicus curiae brief in the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Terrence Williams, a Pennsylvania death row inmate who asserted that his Due Process rights were violated because a potentially biased jurist participated in deciding his appeal. The jurist was Ronald Castille, the then-Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, who formerly had been the District Attorney and personally approved seeking the death penalty for Williams; after he became the Chief Justice, he refused to recuse himself when the state’s appeal from an Order granting Williams post-conviction relief came before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

On June 9, the Supreme Court held that, “[U]nder 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.” Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___ (2016). The 5-3 decision overturned the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that reinstated Williams’ death sentence. A lower court in Pennsylvania had reversed the death sentence because the trial prosecutor had suppressed material, exculpatory evidence and engaged in “prosecutorial gamesmanship.” Although Chief Justice Castille apparently did not know of the misconduct, in addition to having personally signed off on the death warrant, he had campaigned for his seat on the state Supreme Court based on his record sending defendants to death row while he served as District Attorney.

The Academy’s brief amicus brief argued that due process required recusal; that recusal of even a potentially biased judge is essential to maintaining an effective legal system and preserving respect for law; and that the collegial nature of appellate decision-making prohibits participation of a biased judge whether the court is divided or unanimous.

Pennsylvania argued that any due process violation was harmless error because Chief Justice Castille did not cast the deciding vote. But the Majority Opinion had “little trouble concluding that a due process violation arising from the participation of an interested judge is a defect “not amenable” to harmless-error review, regardless of whether the judge’s vote was dispositive. As the Court explained, “the appearance of bias demeans the reputation and integrity not just of one jurist, but of the larger institution of which he or she is a part. … Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus to the rule of law itself.”

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, dissented. In their view, the Due Process Clause did not prohibit Chief Justice Castille from hearing Williams’s case, and therefore did not require recusal although his participation may have violated state ethical rules. Justice Thomas dissented separately, emphasizing his view that due process requirements are less stringent in post-conviction review of criminal cases than at trial.

About the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers (AAAL)
Founded in 1990, the American Academy of Appellate Lawyers is a non-profit professional association consisting of approximately 300 experienced appellate lawyers, former judges, and academicians nationwide. Membership in the Academy is by selection only. Central to the Academy’s mission is preserving and advancing the administration of justice on appeal and the ethics of the profession as they relate to the appellate process. In 2010, after extensive investigation, the Academy promulgated and published eight “Principles of State Appellate Judicial Disqualification,” (“Principles”). These Principles reflect the Academy’s collective views on the best practices that should be used in resolving judicial recusal issues.

The Academy files amicus briefs only in select cases; it filed in the Williams case because it believes that public respect for the fairness, impartiality and objectivity of the appellate courts is essential both to the performance of their roles and to maintaining public respect for our appellate courts. The Academy expresses its deep gratitude to Wendy Lascher, who authored the Academy’s excellent amicus brief.