|U.S. Supreme Court|
Justices weigh whether judge who had helped prosecute the case should have recused himself
WASHINGTON—The U.S. Supreme Court appeared ready on Monday to raise ethical standards for state courts, with some justices clearly troubled that an elected Pennsylvania justice who voted to uphold a death sentence previously had helped prosecute the case as a district attorney.
“At what point do we give meaning to the constitutional command that you can’t be prosecutor and judge?” Justice Sonia Sotomayor said. “The judge here actually signed his name to his review of the facts and his decision to seek the death penalty.”
Monday’s case came from Philadelphia, where Terrance Williams, then 18 years old, and an accomplice were convicted of the 1984 murder of Amos Norwood, 56. The victim was taken to a cemetery, robbed and beaten to death with a tire iron and a socket wrench. The corpse, later set afire, was identified through dental records.
Ronald Castille, as Philadelphia’s elected district attorney, authorized trial prosecutors to seek the death penalty, one of 45 obtained during his tenure. He cited that record in 1993 during his successful campaign for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and eventually served as chief justice.
In 2012, a state court found prosecutors had withheld evidence that could have influenced jurors to spare Mr. Williams the death penalty and ordered a new sentencing hearing.
Prosecutors appealed the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, where then Chief Justice Castille denied a defense motion to recuse himself and joined a unanimous decision reinstating the death sentence.
In a concurrence, the chief justice called the Williams claim “frivolous,” branded the lower-court decision as “lawless” and castigated the federal public defender’s office, which had taken up the case, for “an obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda” designed to “unsettle and undermine Pennsylvania law.” He left the court two weeks later, having reached the mandatory retirement age of 70.
On Monday, several justices at the U.S. Supreme Court probed for a legal standard that could clarify how much prior involvement in a case should trigger a justice’s recusal. Justice Samuel Alito, for instance, asked about whether the situation violated the Constitution. “It’s really not enough to just say what happened here was bad,” he said.
Source: The Wall Street Journal, Jess Bravin, Feb. 29, 2016