audio_analysis“You can’t be prosecutor and judge.”

Justice Sotomayor repeated this refrain several times during oral arguments in Williams v. Pennsylvania last week. At issue in the case is whether the prosecutor who signed off on pursuing the death penalty against Terrance Williams thirty years ago, Ronald Castille, should have recused himself from an appeal in Williams’s case that came before him while he was the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court three years ago.

There are many reasons why Castille should have recused himself from the case. As the District Attorney for Philadelphia, Castille led the office that prosecuted Williams for murder in 1986. Castille also personally authorized the trial prosecutor in the case to seek the death penalty against Williams. In addition, several years after Williams was convicted and sentenced to death, Castille ran for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and campaigned on the fact that as DA he had sent 45 people to death row—Williams being the first of those.

Even more troubling is that the subject of Williams’s most recent appeal is the integrity of the DA’s office that prosecuted him 30 years ago—the same DA’s office that Castille was in charge of at the time. Based on newly discovered evidence, a lower state court found that the DA’s office had violated Williams’s constitutional rights by withholding key evidence that could have aided Williams in his defense at trial and sentencing. Thus, when the state immediately appealed that ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the alleged wrongdoing by Castille’s office was front and center.

And yet, Castille refused to recuse himself from the case. In fact, he even refused to refer Williams’s recusal motion to the full court to allow his colleagues to weigh in (from a more neutral standpoint). Instead, he participated in the case as the Chief Justice and joined the court in reversing the lower court and denying Williams relief. Castille even went out of his way to write a separate opinion chiding the lower court for being too careless in condemning his DA’s office of wrongdoing, and blasting the public defender’s office representing Williams for orchestrating what he called a “circus” in this and other death penalty cases in the state.[1]

Seven years ago, the United States Supreme Court set forth a new constitutional standard for judicial recusal in the case Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co.[2] The Court held that due process requires recusal not just when there’s actual bias, but also when there is a serious, objective risk of bias affecting the case. The Court must now decide if Castille’s participation in this case violated Williams’s due process rights.


[1] In the waning years of his tenure on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, Chief Justice Castille has written several opinions that showcased his inherit distrust of the Federal Community Defender’s Office (FCDO) of Pennsylvania. See, e.g., Commonwealth v. Hackett, 99 A.3d 11, 40–41 (Pa. 2014) (Castille, C.J., concurring) (“The FCDO’s vast federal resources, represented by its cadre of lawyers and roster of experts, are deployed throughout the Commonwealth; individual trial courts, and county prosecutors for that matter, who see only the occasional capital case, may be unaware of the bigger picture, and the strategy at work. This extraordinary shadow capability of the FCDO, and its demonstrated tactics, give me additional pause . . . .” (emphasis added) (footnote omitted)); Commonwealth v. Spotz, 99 A.3d 866 (Pa. 2014) (Castille, C.J., single justice opinion on post-decisional motions) (laying out a 56-page attack on the FCDO’s participation in state post-conviction review of capital cases generally).

[2] 556 U.S. 868 (2009).