Williams Case Features Thorny Recusal Questions for SCOTUS

n-SUPREME-COURT-large570When the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments February 29 in Williams v. Pennsylvania,  justices will have to consider whether a Pennsylvania judge should have stepped aside in a situation that bears some similarities to instances in which they themselves have declined to do so, according to The New York Times.

The Times’ Adam Liptak writes that justices will have to rule on whether former Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald Castille should have recused himself from a death penalty case that came before the court, since the case was one his office had prosecuted when he served as Philadelphia’s District Attorney.  The question “puts the justices in a ticklish spot,” Liptak writes, “as the best arguments against recusal are grounded in their own practices. Individual justices decide for themselves whether their recusal is warranted, just as Mr. Castille had.”

The case also raises questions about the effects of judicial campaigning on criminal justice, since Castille had run for judicial office on “tough-on-crime” themes. Justice at Stake has joined a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, arguing that death-row inmate Terrance Williams was denied his due process rights last year when Castille declined Williams’ request to step aside from hearing an appeal. The justice then joined a unanimous opinion that reversed a lower court and lifted the stay of Williams’ execution.  (See Gavel Grab.)

“When judges facing re-election decide criminal cases, scholarly research increasingly shows that tough-on-crime judicial campaign politicking results in harsher sentences,” Liz Seaton, JAS Interim Executive Director, said when the brief was filed.