When you think of a judge, you likely envision someone whose primary characteristic is impartiality, a person able to apply the rules of law to a case without personal involvement. But a case from Pennsylvania that has now worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court reveals this basic assumption about judges may not always be true and raises new questions about when a judge ought to recuse him or herself from a case due to personal involvement.
The Pennsylvania case involved an appeal on behalf of Terrance Williams, who had been convicted of murder in 1986 and sentenced to death by the trial court. A lower court subsequently set the death sentence aside, a decision that was eventually appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in 2014, where Ronald Castille then served as chief justice. The Pennsylvania high court reinstated that death sentence, which was no great surprise. The shocker was that before he became a judge, Castille was a district attorney, and, in fact, the very DA who asked for the death penalty in Williams’ case to begin with nearly 30 years beforehand.
What is recusal?
All states have laws and policies that require judges to recuse themselves (or withdraw from participating in a case) when they have a personal involvement in the case. Judges who work in their home communities often have ties with people and businesses that make it impossible to remain objective. Many judges practice as attorneys first and may have actually worked on a case that eventually comes before their court. It’s common practice for judges to remove themselves from cases when they have some personal or professional involvement, or even if one of the parties has talked to them about the case outside of court. The parties can ask that the judge recuse him or herself as well. And in the Williams’ case, the defendant’s lawyers did ask Castille to do so, but he refused.
Was this appropriate?
Attorneys for the state argued before the U.S. Supreme Court that Castille didn’t actually prosecute the case himself. All he did was sign papers authorizing the request for the death penalty. They claimed it was just an administrative task and didn’t compromise his impartiality.
The plaintiffs argued that any judge who personally authorized the death penalty for an accused cannot be impartial in applying it to that same accused person. Legal experts believe the court will rule in favor of Williams and hold that it is inappropriate for a judge to sit on a case he was also DA for, particularly when the stakes are so high.
The bigger question
The case has sparked discussion about whether prosecutors in general should serve as judges. More prosecutors are appointed to judgeships than are former defenders, which results in courts stacked with judges with the mindset that they must be tough on crime. A defendant is due a fair and impartial trial, but can a former prosecutor ever truly ensure one? It’s unlikely that the Supreme Court will consider that issue, but it is one that perhaps ought to be discussed publicly.