Supreme Court Clarifies When a Judge Should Recuse Himself

by John D. Ioakimidis, Esq,

We are being inundated with news stories about Donald Trump claiming that a Federal Judge of Mexican heritage presiding over a fraud case involving him should recuse himself from hearing his case because of his ethnic background.  This story is dominating the news and sparked a partisan debate over when a judge should recuse himself. Well, the United States Supreme Court just decided a case involving when a Judge should recuse himself.  In 1986, Ronald Castille was Philadelphia’s District Attorney.  Terrance Williams and a friend, both 18 years old, had been charged with murdering Amos Norwood with a tire iron.  The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office was considering whether to proceed with the Death Penalty against Williams.  A subordinate of Castille recommended that they proceed with the Death Penalty against Williams and Castille signed off on doing just that.  Williams was eventually convicted of Murder and sentenced to death.  Later on Castille ran for a seat on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and while he declined to take a public position on the death penalty he claimed to have sent 45 people to death row when he was the Philadelphia District Attorney.  Williams happened to be the first the first person sentenced to death under his tenure as Philadelphia District Attorney. In 2012 Williams filed an appeal claiming prosecutorial misconduct by the office that Castille had once led. Williams claimed that evidence had been withheld from his attorneys which would have supported his claim that the victim had abused young boys, which supported his claim that the victim had abused him.  Williams filed a motion requesting that Castille recuse himself because he was now sitting on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court which would be deciding his appeal.  Castille denied the petition to recuse himself.  A lower court granted Williams’s request, and two weeks before he retired. Castille joined a unanimous Pennsylvania Supreme Court which overturned the lower court decision and reinstated Williams’s death sentence.  Castille subsequently stated that he was simply acting in an administrative capacity in the case when he was the District Attorney and didn’t try the case.

Williams appealed Castille’s denial of his request that he recuse himself, and last Thursday, in a 5 to 3 decision, the United States Supreme Court agreed with Williams that Castille should not have taken part in the decision. In the majority opinion authored by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Court stated that “Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave an unacceptable risk of actual bias.”  While there are no specific rules governing when a judge should recuse themselves, it seems like the appearance of impropriety is enough to require that a judge recuse himself.  The Court set forth an objective standard.  The appearance of impropriety is significant in this case because Castille was leading the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office when the decision to seek the death penalty against Williams was made. Castille had a significant personal involvement in Williams’s case.  While the entire Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with Castille’s decision, the Supreme Court did not think Castille should put them in a position of having to inquire what impact his opinion had in the decision making process.  The Supreme Court ordered the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to rehear the appeal.

James Dimeas is an award winning criminal defense attorney and author with more than 23 years of experience aggressively representing his clients in criminal cases.  If you have a criminal case in Illinois, contact me in Chicago (312-229-5500), DuPage and Kane (630-504-2096) or Lake (847-696-6458) for a free and confidential consultation to discuss your legal options.

Additional Resources:

Williams v. Pennsylvania,  (2016) No: 15-5040.

Trump Defends Criticism of Judge with Mexican HeritageTheodore Schleifer, CNN, June 5, 2016.

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