Supreme Court Rules Prosecutor-Turned-Judge May Be Unconstitutionally Biased

The Supreme Court ruled 5-3 that when a judge had significant prior personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case the judge must recuse himself or herself. 

District attorney Castille approved a subordinate prosecutor’s request to seek the death penalty against Terrance Williams. Williams was accused of a robbery and murder which he denied, on the stand, participating in.

Almost 30 years later Williams’s co-conspirator revealed that he had informed the prosecutor on the case that Williams and the victim had a sexual relationship that was the motive for the murder. A lower state court threw out Williams’s execution after discovering extensive prosecutor misconduct. 

Meanwhile, Castille had become Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which was tasked with reviewing the lower court’s decision. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously reversed the lower court. Castille refused to recuse himself.

In Williams v. Pennsylvania the Supreme Court concluded Castille’s decision not to recuse was unconstitutional. Due process requires that judges not be biased; defendants only need demonstrate a judge has objective potential bias. In In re Murchison (1955) the Court held that an “unconstitutional potential for bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator.” The facts in Murchison are different than the facts of this case but “the constitutional principles explained in Murchison are fully applicable where a judge had a direct, personal role in the defendant’s prosecution.”  

The Court concluded that Castille’s involvement in this case was personal and significant. The decision to pursue the death penalty is a “critical choice in the adversary process”; the death penalty would not have been pursued in this case without Castille’s express authorization.  

Castille’s vote in this case wasn’t decisive. Nevertheless the Court held that Williams was entitled to a rehearing before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. “The fact that the interested judge’s vote was not dispositive may mean only that the judge was successful in persuading most members of the court to accept his or her position. That outcome does not lessen the unfairness to the affected party.”