Williams v. Pennsylvania, No. 15–5040.

CourtUnited States Supreme Court
Writing for the CourtJustice KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.
Citation195 L.Ed.2d 132,136 S.Ct. 1899
Parties Terrance WILLIAMS, Petitioner v. PENNSYLVANIA.
Docket NumberNo. 15–5040.
Decision Date09 June 2016

136 S.Ct. 1899
195 L.Ed.2d 132

Terrance WILLIAMS, Petitioner
v.
PENNSYLVANIA.

No. 15–5040.

Supreme Court of the United States

Argued Feb. 29, 2016.
Decided June 9, 2016.


Stuart B. Lev, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioner.

Ronald Eisenberg, Philadelphia, PA, for Respondent.

136 S.Ct. 1903

Leigh M. Skipper, Chief Federal Defender, Stuart B. Lev, Shawn Nolan, Matthew C. Lawry, Timothy P. Kane, Katherine E. Ensler, Federal Community Defender Office, Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, for Petitioner.

Ronald Eisenberg, Deputy District Attorney, Hugh J. Burns, Jr., Chief, Appeals Unit, George D. Mosee, Jr., First Assistant District Attorney, R. Seth Williams, District Attorney, Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, Philadelphia, PA, for Respondent.

Justice KENNEDYdelivered the opinion of the Court.

In this case, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania vacated the decision of a postconviction court, which had granted relief to a prisoner convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. One of the justices on the State Supreme Court had been the district attorney who gave his official approval to seek the death penalty in the prisoner's case. The justice in question denied the prisoner's motion for recusal and participated in the decision to deny relief. The question presented is whether the justice's denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent judicial participation violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

This Court's precedents set forth an objective standard that requires recusal when the likelihood of bias on the part of the judge " 'is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.' " Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868, 872, 129 S.Ct. 2252, 173 L.Ed.2d 1208 (2009)(quoting Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47, 95 S.Ct. 1456, 43 L.Ed.2d 712 (1975)). Applying this standard, the Court concludes that due process compelled the justice's recusal.

I

Petitioner is Terrance Williams. In 1984, soon after Williams turned 18, he murdered 56–year–old Amos Norwood in Philadelphia. At trial, the Commonwealth presented evidence that Williams and a friend, Marc Draper, had been standing on a street corner when Norwood drove by. Williams and Draper requested a ride home from Norwood, who agreed. Draper then gave Norwood false directions that led him to drive toward a cemetery. Williams and Draper ordered Norwood out of the car and into the cemetery. There, the two men tied Norwood in his own clothes and beat him to death. Testifying for the Commonwealth, Draper suggested that robbery was the motive for the crime. Williams took the stand in his own defense, stating that he was not involved in the crime and did not know the victim.

During the trial, the prosecutor requested permission from her supervisors in the district attorney's office to seek the death penalty against Williams. To support the request, she prepared a memorandum setting forth the details of the crime, information supporting two statutory aggravating factors, and facts in mitigation. After reviewing the memorandum, the then-district attorney of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille, wrote this note at the bottom of the document: "Approved to proceed on the death penalty." App. 426a.

During the penalty phase of the trial, the prosecutor argued that Williams deserved a death sentence because he killed Norwood " 'for no other reason but that a kind man offered him a ride home.' " Brief for Petitioner 7. The jurors found two aggravating circumstances: that the murder

136 S.Ct. 1904

was committed during the course of a robbery and that Williams had a significant history of violent felony convictions. That criminal history included a previous conviction for a murder he had committed at age 17. The jury found no mitigating circumstances and sentenced Williams to death. Over a period of 26 years, Williams's conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, state postconviction review, and federal habeas review.

In 2012, Williams filed a successive petition pursuant to Pennsylvania's Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA), 42 Pa. Cons.Stat. § 9541 et seq. (2007). The petition was based on new information from Draper, who until then had refused to speak with Williams's attorneys. Draper told Williams's counsel that he had informed the Commonwealth before trial that Williams had been in a sexual relationship with Norwood and that the relationship was the real motive for Norwood's murder. According to Draper, the Commonwealth had instructed him to give false testimony that Williams killed Norwood to rob him. Draper also admitted he had received an undisclosed benefit in exchange for his testimony: the trial prosecutor had promised to write a letter to the state parole board on his behalf. At trial, the prosecutor had elicited testimony from Draper indicating that his only agreement with the prosecution was to plead guilty in exchange for truthful testimony. No mention was made of the additional promise to write the parole board.

The Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, identified in the proceedings below as the PCRA court, held an evidentiary hearing on Williams's claims. Williams alleged in his petition that the prosecutor had procured false testimony from Draper and suppressed evidence regarding Norwood's sexual relationship with Williams. At the hearing, both Draper and the trial prosecutor testified regarding these allegations. The PCRA court ordered the district attorney's office to produce the previously undisclosed files of the prosecutor and police. These documents included the trial prosecutor's sentencing memorandum, bearing then-District Attorney Castille's authorization to pursue the death penalty. Based on the Commonwealth's files and the evidentiary hearing, the PCRA court found that the trial prosecutor had suppressed material, exculpatory evidence in violation of Brady v. Maryland, 373 U.S. 83, 83 S.Ct. 1194, 10 L.Ed.2d 215 (1963), and engaged in "prosecutorial gamesmanship." App. 168a. The court stayed Williams's execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing.

Seeking to vacate the stay of execution, the Commonwealth submitted an emergency application to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. By this time, almost three decades had passed since Williams's prosecution. Castille had been elected to a seat on the State Supreme Court and was serving as its chief justice. Williams filed a response to the Commonwealth's application. The disclosure of the trial prosecutor's sentencing memorandum in the PCRA proceedings had alerted Williams to Chief Justice Castille's involvement in the decision to seek a death sentence in his case. For this reason, Williams also filed a motion asking Chief Justice Castille to recuse himself or, if he declined to do so, to refer the recusal motion to the full court for decision. The Commonwealth opposed Williams's recusal motion. Without explanation, Chief Justice Castille denied the motion for recusal and the request for its referral. Two days later, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the application to vacate the stay and ordered full briefing on the issues raised in the appeal. The State Supreme Court then vacated the PCRA court's order granting penalty-phase relief and reinstated Williams's

136 S.Ct. 1905

death sentence. Chief Justice Castille and Justices Baer and Stevens joined the majority opinion written by Justice Eakin. Justices Saylor and Todd concurred in the result without issuing a separate opinion. See 629 Pa. 533, ––––, 105 A.3d 1234, 1245 (2014).

Chief Justice Castille authored a concurrence. He lamented that the PCRA court had "lost sight of its role as a neutral judicial officer" and had stayed Williams's execution "for no valid reason." Id., at ––––, 105 A.3d, at 1245. "[B]efore condemning officers of the court," the chief justice stated, "the tribunal should be aware of the substantive status of Brady law," which he believed the PCRA court had misapplied. Id., at ––––, 105 A.3d, at 1246. In addition, Chief Justice Castille denounced what he perceived as the "obstructionist anti-death penalty agenda" of Williams's attorneys from the Federal Community Defender Office. Ibid. PCRA courts "throughout Pennsylvania need to be vigilant and circumspect when it comes to the activities of this particular advocacy group," he wrote, lest Defender Office lawyers turn postconviction proceedings "into a circus where [they] are the ringmasters, with their parrots and puppets as a sideshow." Id., at ––––, 105 A.3d, at 1247.

Two weeks after the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided Williams's case, Chief Justice Castille retired from the bench. This Court granted Williams's petition for certiorari. 576 U.S. ––––, 136 S.Ct. 28, 192 L.Ed.2d 999 (2015).

II

A

Williams contends that Chief Justice Castille's decision as district attorney to seek a death sentence against him barred the chief justice from later adjudicating Williams's petition to overturn that sentence. Chief Justice Castille, Williams argues, violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by acting as both accuser and judge in his case.

The Court's due process precedents do not set forth a specific test governing recusal when, as here, a judge had prior involvement in a case as a prosecutor. For the reasons explained below, however,...

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284 practice notes
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    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • June 16, 2020
    ...10th Dist. Dec. 6, 2012), appeal not allowed at 134 Ohio St. 3d 1488, 2013-Ohio-902. But see Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 1899, 195 L. Ed. 2d 132 (2016). The Warden argues that the decision, as a state court decision on a question of constitutional law, is entitled to ......
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    • Court of Appeals of Texas
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    ...an objective standard that, in the usual case, avoids having to determine whether actual bias is present." Williams v. Pennsylvania, 136 S.Ct. 1899, 1905 (2016) ("Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements......
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    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • August 2, 2018
    ...Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927);Page 26 Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868 (2009); Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1899, 195 L.Ed.2d 132 (2016). The difficulty with Petitioner's position is that he asks this Court to speculate that the trial judge was prejud......
  • Johnson v. Morales, No. 17-2519
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • January 7, 2020
    ...Federal due process "guarantees ‘an absence of actual bias’ on the part of a judge." Williams v. Pennsylvania , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1899, 1905, 195 L.Ed.2d 132 (2016) (quoting In re Murchison , 349 U.S. 133, 136, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942 (1955) ). But we apply an objective......
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282 cases
  • Davis v. Shoop, Case No. 2:16-cv-495
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • June 16, 2020
    ...10th Dist. Dec. 6, 2012), appeal not allowed at 134 Ohio St. 3d 1488, 2013-Ohio-902. But see Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S. Ct. 1899, 195 L. Ed. 2d 132 (2016). The Warden argues that the decision, as a state court decision on a question of constitutional law, is entitled to ......
  • Steward Health Care System LLC v. Saidara, 05-19-00274-CV
    • United States
    • Court of Appeals of Texas
    • August 20, 2021
    ...an objective standard that, in the usual case, avoids having to determine whether actual bias is present." Williams v. Pennsylvania, 136 S.Ct. 1899, 1905 (2016) ("Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus ......
  • Suntoke v. Warden, Case No. 2:15-cv-1354
    • United States
    • United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. United States District Courts. 6th Circuit. Southern District of Ohio
    • August 2, 2018
    ...Tumey v. Ohio, 273 U.S. 510 (1927);Page 26 Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868 (2009); Williams v. Pennsylvania, 579 U.S. ___, 136 S.Ct. 1899, 195 L.Ed.2d 132 (2016). The difficulty with Petitioner's position is that he asks this Court to speculate that the trial judge was prejud......
  • Johnson v. Morales, No. 17-2519
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit
    • January 7, 2020
    ...license. Federal due process "guarantees ‘an absence of actual bias’ on the part of a judge." Williams v. Pennsylvania , ––– U.S. ––––, 136 S. Ct. 1899, 1905, 195 L.Ed.2d 132 (2016) (quoting In re Murchison , 349 U.S. 133, 136, 75 S.Ct. 623, 99 L.Ed. 942 (1955) ). But we apply an objective ......
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2 books & journal articles
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    • The Georgetown Journal of Law & Public Policy Nbr. 18-2, July 2020
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    ...nay, with greater reason, a body of men are unf‌it to be both judges and parties, at the same time . . . .”); Williams v. Pennsylvania, 136 S. Ct. 1899, 1905–06 (2016); Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal Co., 556 U.S. 868, 876–77 (2009); Gutierrez de Martinez v. Lamagno, 515 U.S. 417, 428–29 (199......
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    ...ed. 2020) (discussing ethical and procedural dimensions of disqualification). (148) 556 U.S. 868, 872-73 (2009). (149) Id. at 886. (150) 136 S. Ct. 1899, 1903 (151) Id. at 1907. (152) Cheney v. U.S. Dist. Ct. for D.C., 541 U.S. 913, 914-15 (2004). (153) Id. (154) Id. at 916-17. (155) See id......

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