Former State Chief Justices: Pennsylvania Justice Should Not Have Approved Death as D.A., Then Reviewed Case on Appeal

Posted on Feb 17, 2016

In a recent Washington Times op-ed, two former state supreme court chief justices argue that a state supreme court justice who, as district attorney, had authorized the capital prosecution of a defendant, should not have later participated as a judge in deciding an appeal in that case. Gerald Kogan (pictured, l.), former chief justice of the Florida Supreme Court, and Michael Wolff (pictured, r.), former chief justice of the Supreme Court of Missouri, joined a number of other former judges who had been prosecutors and former appellate court jurists in filing briefs supporting the position of Philadelphia death-row prisoner Terry Williams in the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case, Williams v. Pennsylvania. The case, which the Court will hear on February 29, concerns the participation of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald Castille in the prosecution’s appeal of a trial court ruling that had overturned Williams’ death sentence because of prosecutorial misconduct. The appeals court reversed the trial court and reinstated Williams’ death sentence. Kogan and Wolff say that Castille should have recused himself from hearing the appeal. “We, along with many other former judges, have urged the Supreme Court to find that Chief Justice Castille’s prior relationship to the case created an impermissible risk of bias,” they say. “As the former district attorney, Chief Justice Castille personally, in a handwritten note, authorized seeking the death penalty for Mr. Williams. Moreover, he used the Williams death verdict to support his campaign for the Supreme Court seat. And finally, considering the case required Chief Justice Castille to evaluate a court’s finding of misconduct against the office over which he formerly presided.”

The former chief justices urge the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the potential impact of the case on the criminal justice system: “Impartial tribunals, free of actual and apparent bias, ensure the public trust in the courts and the rule of law. Chief Justice Castille’s failure to remove himself from Terry Williams‘ case undermined the fairness of the proceedings, and damaged our criminal justice system as a whole. We have urged the U.S. Supreme Court to agree, and to reaffirm the importance of a judiciary that acts fairly and without conflict.”

(G. Kogan and M. Wolff, “Being fair and neutral,” Washington Times, February 11, 2016.) Read the Brief for Amici Curiae Former Judges With Prosecutorial Experience here. Read the Brief of Former Appellate Court Jurists as Amici Curiae here. See U.S. Supreme Court and New Voices.