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Faculty Blog: Williams v. Pennsylvania Raises Major Concerns About U.S. Justice System

Professor Eldred wrote that this latest decision is a missed opportunity by the Court that could undermine the long-term value of the decision, particularly when, as Professor Eldred notes, there was significant literature and research in this area available to the Court. Here, I want to address another issue raised by the facts of the case that should alarm anyone concerned about the fairness of our criminal justice system—namely, the role of the prosecutor. While I can’t say that this was another missed opportunity by the Court to address the question since it was not directly before the Court, the troubling story recounted by the facts of the case serves as an important backdrop and raises important questions about the quality of justice in death penalty and other cases. In its recounting of the facts of the case, the Court noted that the prosecutor assigned to the murder case against Williams sent a two-page memorandum to the district attorney requesting approval to seek the death penalty. The then-district attorney, later Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, approved the request by writing: “Approved to proceed on the death penalty.” The case before the Court was about whether the district attorney who penned that approval could some 30 years later sit as one of the justices on the court called upon to vacate William’s stay of execution. The Supreme Court also noted a number of Brady violations that the prosecuting attorney allegedly committed in the case, as well as the fact that none of this information—the prosecution memo and approval by the district attorney or the possible Brady violations—came to light until the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas ordered the district attorney’s office to produce previously undisclosed files, many years after Williams’ trial.

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Faculty Blog: The Psychology of Conflicts of Interest in Williams v. Pennsylvania

The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision in Williams v. Pennsylvania, handed down during the turmoil in the presidential campaign over the heated rhetoric on judicial impartiality, adds to the Supreme Court’s growing jurisprudence on the due process requirements for judicial disqualification. The issue in the case—whether a justice on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court could properly adjudicate a death penalty case when he had previously been the prosecutor who authorized capital charges against the defendant—set the stage for a ruling that could have provided broad guidance on the due process parameters for judicial disqualification, especially in criminal cases. Yet the Court’s holding may end up having only limited impact. As others have already started to note, the test announced by the Court—“that under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a crucial decision regarding the defendant’s case”—will be hard to prove and adds little additional guidance to what is already available under existing ethical standards for judicial recusal in most states. In addition, my guess is that there are few cases in which a prosecutor-turned-judge will be asked to rule on a case in which he or she was previously involved, so this test is likely to directly apply to only a narrow band of future situations.