JAS Spotlights ‘Consequences of Judicial Elections’ in Death Case

The Supreme Court heard arguments on Monday in a case involving a deathrow inmate who contended he was denied his right to a fair day in court by Pennsylvania’s then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille. The judge  had campaigned for election to the bench on a “tough-on-crime” record as Philadelphia’s top prosecutor.

Justice at Stake Executive Director Susan Liss attended oral arguments in the case, Williams v. Pennsylvania, and made the following statement:

“The facts of this case are critical. Chief Justice Castille, as a prosecutor, approved seeking the death sentence for a defendant – and then campaigned for election to the bench using a ‘tough-on-crime’- death penalty campaign plank. He later declined to recuse himself from the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s decision reversing the lower court and resulting in Terrance Williams being sentenced to death. It was clear today that the Court was very troubled by the appearance of conflict when a judge has also served as prosecutor. 

“During arguments, the justices also acknowledged that at present, recusal standards in U.S. state courts are a patchwork, raising due process and constitutional questions for defendants.

“This case is a stark illustration of the consequences of judicial elections, especially when judges and judicial candidates campaign on ‘tough-on-crime’ platforms. When electoral pressures exert influence, real questions arise about whether people can and will receive justice in state courts.”

An Associated Press article about Monday’s oral arguments said, “The Supreme Court on Monday appeared likely to rule that a Philadelphia district attorney-turned-state high court judge should not have taken part in the case of a prison inmate whose death-penalty prosecution he had personally approved nearly 30 years earlier.” It appeared that Terrance Williams may get a new hearing in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, the AP said. To read about a commentary about the case by Liz Seaton of Justice at Stake, see  Gavel Grab.

JAS and the Brennan Center for Justice have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, citing evidence that judicial decision-making can be affected by electoral pressure.