Com. v. Jones

Decision Date08 June 1995
Citation663 A.2d 142,541 Pa. 351
PartiesCOMMONWEALTH of Pennsylvania, Respondent, v. James JONES, Petitioner.
CourtPennsylvania Supreme Court

CASTILLE, Justice.

On May 26, 1995, James Jones ("Petitioner") filed a Motion for Recusal requesting that I recuse myself from participating in the consideration or decision of petitioner's petitions requesting that this Court exercise its King Bench Powers and grant a stay of his execution, which is scheduled for 10 p.m. on June 13, 1995, 1 pending resolution by the United States Supreme Court on his petition for writ of certiorari. 2 The basis for petitioner's request for recusal is that as District Attorney of Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania, my name appeared on a brief filed with this Court on May 14, 1990 urging affirmance of petitioner's conviction and death sentence. 3

Under the existing practice of this Court, recusal has been a matter of individual discretion or conscience and only the jurist being asked to recuse himself or herself may properly respond to such a request. Commonwealth v. O'Shea, 523 Pa. 384, 407, 567 A.2d 1023, 1034 (1989), cert. denied, 498 U.S. 881, 111 S.Ct. 225, 112 L.Ed.2d 180 (1990); In re Crawford's Estate, 307 Pa. 102, 108-09, 160 A. 585, 587 (1932). For the reasons set forth below, I have determined that my recusal in this matter is not warranted.

At the outset, it is important to note that during my tenure as District Attorney from January of 1986 through February of 1991, the Philadelphia District Attorney's office (consisting of approximately 225 attorneys and a total of 475 staff employees) each year disposed of over 65,000 criminal matters and several thousand appeals in both the Superior and Supreme Courts of Pennsylvania, as well as in the federal courts. Given this enormous volume of criminal cases processed in Philadelphia County, it was impossible for the duly-elected District Attorney to be personally familiar with the details of each and every criminal case prosecuted by his assistants and deputy district attorneys during his or her tenure.

I would also note that because of my duly-elected position as District Attorney, as a matter of formality, a stamp of my signature was required to be affixed to all indictments and complaints issued during my tenure. My name was also required to be listed on numerous appellate and amicus curiae briefs filed on behalf of the District Attorney's office. Petitioner should not construe this formal administrative step or requirement to suggest that I was, per se, personally and directly involved with the prosecution or appeal of his criminal case.

With respect to petitioner's matter presently before this Court, I was not District Attorney at the time petitioner was tried in 1981. As for petitioner's appeal to this Court in 1990, I am not aware of any materials indicating that I personally reviewed petitioner's criminal file or otherwise personally participated in the prosecution of petitioner's matter as an advisor, or as a trial or appellate attorney. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge and recollection, I have no factual information about petitioner's underlying criminal case other than the knowledge and information contained in the petitions and briefs that I have reviewed through my duties as a Justice of this Court. I have not prejudged petitioner's matter nor would I prejudge it simply because I served as a District Attorney and had a general responsibility for all matters that fell within my official capacity, this being one of the many. Given the absence of personal involvement with petitioner's matter while I served as District Attorney, and upon review of the relevant case law, I see no reason to recuse myself in this matter.

In Laird v. Tatum, 409 U.S. 824, 93 S.Ct. 7, 34 L.Ed.2d 50 (1972), then Justice William Rehnquist, and now Chief Justice, was asked to disqualify himself in a matter that appeared before the United States Supreme Court because as an Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice he had publicly commented on the subject matter then pending before the Court in Laird v. Tatum (the statutory and constitutional law regarding the authority of the executive branch to gather information), and also because he had previously testified as an expert witness on behalf of the Justice Department in Senate hearings inquiring into the very same subject. The respondents in Laird claimed that Justice Rehnquist's impartiality was "clearly questionable" because of his expert testimony in the Senate hearings, because of his intimate knowledge of the subject matter underlying the allegations before the Court, and because of his public statements about issues related to the pending matter prior to his appointment to the Court. 409 U.S. at 825, 93 S.Ct. at 9.

Rejecting respondents' arguments, Justice Rehnquist held that even though he held a high-level supervisory position in the Department of Justice while Laird was being investigated and prosecuted within the Department of Justice, his disqualification was not warranted since he did not have an advisory role in any matters involving Laird v. Tatum, had never signed a pleading or brief regarding the case, and had never personally participated in the courts on behalf of the Government with respect to the Laird v. Tatum case. In support of his position, Justice Rehnquist cited as precedent Schneiderman v. United States, 320 U.S. 118, 63 S.Ct. 1333, 87 L.Ed. 1796, reh'g denied, 320 U.S. 807, 64 S.Ct. 24, 88 L.Ed. 488 (1943), a matter in which United States Supreme Court Justice Murphy did not disqualify himself even though the matter then before the Court had been prosecuted by the Department of Justice while Justice Murphy was the Attorney General of the United States.

Similarly, in Commonwealth v. Darush, 501 Pa. 15, 459 A.2d 727 (1983), this Court held that recusal was not required of a trial judge even though the trial judge formerly, as District Attorney, had personally prosecuted the appellant on charges unrelated to the matter presently before him, had taken a statement of a primary witness in the case before him about the appellant while he was District Attorney, and had been the District Attorney when the offenses in question were committed by the appellant. Appellant argued that the judge should have recused himself because of his prosecutorial role and prior contact with the Appellant. This Court, however, rejected appellant's argument [W]e have never held and are unwilling to adopt a per se rule that a judge who had participated in the prosecution of a defendant may never preside as judge in future unrelated cases involving that defendant. Absent some showing of prejudgment or bias we will not assume a trial court would not be able to provide a defendant a fair trial based solely on prior prosecutorial participation.

Commonwealth v. Darush, 459 A.2d at 731. 4 Accord Commonwealth v. Edmiston, 535 Pa. 210, 229-30, 634 A.2d 1078, 1088 (1993); In re Crawford's Estate, 307 Pa. at 109, 160 A. at 587.

Here, I had no personal connection with petitioner's matter. Thus, as in Darush, since there is no indication that I had any personal connection with petitioner's matter while I was the District Attorney of Philadelphia County, recusal is not warranted. Moreover, recusal is further unwarranted where, as here, there has been no allegation or showing of any specific prejudgment or bias against petitioner. Commonwealth v. Darush, 459 A.2d at 731. As this Court stated in Reilly v. Southeastern Pennsylvania Transp. Authority, 507 Pa. 204, 489 A.2d 1291 (1985):

It is incumbent upon the proponent of a disqualification motion to allege facts tending to show bias, interest or other disqualifying events, and it is the duty of the judge to decide whether he feels he can hear and dispose of the case fairly and without prejudice because we recognize that our judges are honorable, fair and competent.

Reilly, 507 Pa. at 221-22, 489 A.2d at 1300 (emphasis added). Petitioner's sole assertion of fact in support of his motion for recusal is that as District Attorney, my name appeared on a brief filed with this Court. This assertion, without more, fails to meet this threshold requirement.

Petitioner also claims that my review of his petition seeking a stay of his execution as a member of this Court violates or offends the notions of due process. This Court has already spoken as to when matters relating to judicial disqualification may rise to a federal constitutional claim. Adopting the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court in Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. Lavoie, 475 U.S. 813, 820-21, 106 S.Ct. 1580, 1584-85, 89 L.Ed.2d 823 (1986), this Court in Goodheart v. Casey, 523 Pa. 188, 565 A.2d 757 (1989), stated that the Fourteenth Amendment Due Process provision is offended where the jurist has a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest." 565 A.2d at 761 (emphasis added). However, in this case, given the lack of any direct personal involvement with petitioner's underlying matter, in addition to the nonexistence of any prejudgment or bias on my behalf with respect to petitioner, there is clearly no basis for petitioner to claim now, or in the future, that as a Justice on this Court I have a "direct, personal, substantial, pecuniary interest" in the outcome of his case that would possibly substantiate a due process claim.

Just as significant is the fact that there are a total of six Justices who now sit upon this Court, the highest appellate court in this Commonwealth. In addressing the special concerns that arise when a Justice has been asked to recuse or disqualify himself from the highest court, Justice Rehnquist remarked in his Memorandum:

[T]here is no way of substituting Justices on [the highest] Court as one judge may be substituted for another in the district courts. There is no higher court of appeal that may review an equally divided decision of this Court and thereby establish the law for our...

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