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JAS: Williams Case a “Stark Illustration” of Judicial Election Harms

February 29, 2016


JAS:  Williams Case a “Stark Illustration” of Judicial Election Harms

Contact: Laurie Kinney, lkinney@justiceatstake.org, (202) 588-9454; cell (571) 882-3615
WASHINGTON, D.C., February 29 - Justice at Stake Executive Director Susan Liss today attended oral arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court in Williams v. Pennsylvania, in which attorneys for death-row inmate Terrance Williams argued he was denied his right to a fair day in court by the state’s then-Chief Justice Ronald Castille, who had campaigned for election to the bench on a “tough-on-crime” record as Philadelphia’s top prosecutor.  She issued 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.”

Justice at Stake and the Brennan Center for Justice have filed afriend-of-the-court brief in the case, citing evidence that judicial decision-making can be affected by electoral pressure.  The brief contends there were several reasons why Williams was denied his constitutional right of due process when Justice Castille joined a unanimous opinion that reversed a lower court and lifted a stay of his execution.  They included the absence of an independent procedure in Pennsylvania to review an elected judge’s decision not to recuse when asked to do so. As reasons why the judge should have recused himself in the case, the brief cites his history as both a prosecutor connected to the case and as a judicial candidate.

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