Today in the U.S. Supreme Court….

Today, the US Supreme Court is considering a question of

whether the constitution is violated if the chief judge on the highest court of the state refuses to disqualify himself in a death penalty appeal where he was the chief prosecutor who authorized the defendant’s death sentence, obtained the death sentence though his office’s misconduct, and campaigned for the judgeship by showing how many people he put on death row, including the defendant.

Interestingly, amici included many judges, including the late Judge Judith Kaye, who argued that the judge should have recused himself, and a group of professional responsibility law school professors on the same side.

Prof. Bennett Gershman analyzes the issues and implications of Williams v. Pennsylvania in his latest HuffPost article titled A Perfect Storm: Judicial Prosecutorial Misconduct, and a Death Sentence and outlines the various issues involved in this case.  The ultimate question is not only whether the judge should have disqualified himself when deciding the defendant’s death penalty appeal but also whether, if he didn’t, his bias on the panel decision was nothing more than a harmless error. As Prof. Gershman concludes that

…without Justice Scalia, a 4-4 split on the Supreme Court is possible. And if that is the result, then under the Supreme Court’s rules the decision of the Pennsylvania supreme Court would be affirmed – and Terrence Williams will be executed.

Related Readings:

One comment

  1. Peter Widulski

    I want to express my appreciation to Profs. Gershman and Olejnikova for this excellent and important post. The post brings necessary attention to the issue of the propriety of an appellate judge’s recusal because of bias or the appearance of bias – a matter that is usually left to the unguided discretion of the judge in question.
    As one who participated in an Alabama State post-conviction challenge to a death sentence, I encountered the difficulty that in State habeas proceedings, the habeas judge in a capital case is often, as in the case I worked on, the same judge who sentenced the defendant to death. A defense lawyer in such a situation faces not only the difficulties typical to a post-conviction appeal, but also the added difficulty of attempting to persuade the judge that he or she erred in the previous disposition of the case.
    In the case discussed in the post, the prior participation of the person in question was not simply in the role of an impartial judge, but as a prosecutor who publicly proclaimed his record of capital convictions, including the conviction and sentence in the case in question, in order to advance his career. It is difficult to conjure up a more compelling situation requiring recusal.

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