One Supreme Court Case That Should Be Getting More Attention Than It Is

February 24, 2016
Guest Post

by Brianne J. Gorod, chief counsel, Constitutional Accountability Center. Find her on Twitter @BrianneGorod.

The Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court voted to reverse a lower court decision that gave relief to a criminal defendant whom the lower court concluded was the victim of prosecutorial misconduct. The Chief Justice even wrote separately to make clear just how wrong he thought the lower court decision was. At first glance this might seem like nothing unusual, but the conduct the Chief Justice was reviewing was that of lawyers he had supervised as a District Attorney.

Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will be hearing oral argument in Williams v. Pennsylvania, in which the Court has been asked to decide whether the Pennsylvania Chief Justice’s decision to participate in that case was lawful. In a Term with a huge number of blockbuster cases (not to mention a new Supreme Court vacancy), Williams hasn’t been getting a great deal of attention. But it should. It’s a case that will test the Supreme Court’s commitment to the fundamental principle, recognized by James Madison at the nation’s founding, that “[n]o man is allowed to be a judge in his own cause.” And it’s a case that will determine whether the American people can feel confident that they will get what the Supreme Court has said the Constitution’s Due Process Clause requires: “[a] fair trial in a fair tribunal.”

The facts in Williams are truly stunning. In 1986, Terrance Williams was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in Pennsylvania state court. At the time of his trial and sentencing, Ronald Castille was the elected District Attorney of Philadelphia. Castille not only headed the office that prosecuted Williams, he personally approved the pursuit of a death sentence in the case. Decades later (and after Williams’s initial appeals were unsuccessful), a post-conviction court found that the prosecutors in Williams’s case had engaged in “gamesmanship” and “plainly ‘suppressed’” evidence that Williams had been the victim of sexual abuse at the hands of the man he killed. Based on this finding, the post-conviction court granted Williams a new penalty hearing.

By the time the state appealed that decision, Castille was no longer District Attorney. He had been elected Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the court that was now being asked to decide whether attorneys in his office had engaged in misconduct while prosecuting Williams. Because of this obvious conflict of interest, Williams asked that Castille recuse himself, or at the very least, refer his request to the full court for decision. Castille refused to do either. Instead, he joined the court’s opinion reversing the grant of relief and wrote a separate concurrence in which he excoriated both the attorneys who had helped Williams seek that relief and the post-conviction court itself. 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.

When our nation’s Founders drafted our enduring Constitution, the importance of impartial adjudicators had long been a bedrock principle of the common law and one reflected in many of the early state constitutions. The Framers expanded upon this heritage and fully embraced the importance of impartial adjudication as central to a fair justice system, incorporating into the Fifth Amendment the promise that no person shall “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” This commitment was magnified in the years after the Civil War as the Framers of the Fourteenth Amendment witnessed, among other things, widespread maladministration of justice in the South that meant that neither freed slaves nor Unionists could feel confident that they would be treated fairly in the courts. As a result, these Framers renewed the constitutional promise of due process in the Fourteenth Amendment, providing that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” Representative Bingham, principal drafter of Section 1 of that Amendment, explained it this way: The Amendment was intended to ensure “due process of law . . . which is impartial, equal, exact justice.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly reaffirmed that promise, recognizing that the Due Process Clause’s proscription on biased judges encompasses all cases in which a judge’s interest “might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true.” The Court has made clear that it’s not sufficient that “men of the highest honor and the greatest self-sacrifice could carry it on without danger of injustice.” Rather, “[e]very procedure which would offer a possible temptation to the average man as a judge to forget the burden of proof required to convict the defendant, or which might lead him not to hold the balance nice, clear, and true between the state and the accused denies the latter due process of law.” Thus, as Justice Kennedy explained in an opinion for the Court in 2009, the question is whether, “‘under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,’ the interest ‘poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.’”

The interest in this case plainly does. After all, the issue Castille was asked to decide in this case is whether the trial prosecutor in Williams’s case—that is, an attorney on Castille’s staff and for whose conduct Castille was ultimately responsible—suppressed evidence in violation of the law, as the lower court found. An affirmance of the lower court’s order would necessarily impugn the integrity and reputation of the office Castille led and thus his own reputation, as well. It is no insult to Castille to say that “‘under a realistic appraisal of psychological tendencies and human weakness,’ the interest ‘poses such a risk of actual bias or prejudgment that the practice must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.’” For a judge with that level of personal interest in a case to participate in deliberations, potentially influence his colleagues’ votes, and then vote on the case himself, creates not only the appearance of unfairness, but also the probability of it, both of which the Due Process Clause prohibits. As the Supreme Court has said, “to perform its high function in the best way, ‘justice must satisfy the appearance of justice.’”

Whether the American people trust in our justice system depends, in significant part, on whether they can trust the judges who make up that justice system to be impartial. The Supreme Court has long recognized that fact, and if they recognize it again when they hear and decide Williams, there’s little question what they’ll do: They’ll recognize that Chief Justice Castille’s participation in Williams’s case was a clear violation of the Due Process Clause.