The Supreme Court of the United States ruled today that a judge who had a “significant, personal involvement” in a case while in a previous role as a prosecutor must recuse (disqualify) himself from ruling on the case at a later stage. Can I get a “duh” anybody? Here’s the kicker: the vote was 5-3. That means three, count’em, three United States Supreme Court Justices voted to allow the one-time prosecutor to sit as a judge in a case he helped prosecute.
In this case, a guy named Terrance Williams was arrested for murder. In preparing the case for trial, the prosecutor met with his boss, the then-district attorney for Philadelphia, Ronald Castille. In order for any Philly prosecutor to seek a death sentence, District Attorney Castille had to be briefed on the case, and give his approval. In Williams’ case, Castille did just that.
Williams was convicted at trial and sentenced to death. He appealed. Because it was a death penalty case, there were several layers of appeals. In one, Williams alleged that the trial prosecutor had obtained false testimony from Williams’ co-defendant, and had hidden (and failed to disclose) significant exculpatory evidence in violation of the law.
An intermediate appellate court determined that Williams was correct, and overturned his sentence, ordering a new sentencing hearing. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania appealed.
The appeal landed on the desk of none other than Ronald Castille, who was now the chief justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Williams filed what Donald Trump has not: a formal motion to disqualify (recuse) Castille. Castille refused to step aside, and joined the state supreme court ruling overturning the intermediate court and reinstating the death sentence. Castille retired from the bench two weeks later.
Fortunately, for all of us, the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court got it right. Due process requires that one person cannot serve as both an accuser and an adjudicator; a prosecutor and a judge. The majority noted that, “No attorney is more integral to the accusatory process than a prosecutor who participates in a major adversary decision…”
This case should have been a no-brainer. Apparently, three of our jurists cannot reach even that bar.