Williams v. Pennsylvania

579 U.S. _

Case Year: 2016

Case Ruling: 5-3, Vacated and Remanded

Opinion Justice: Kennedy

More Information

Concurring Opinions

Dissenting Opinions

Court Opinion Joiner(s):

Breyer, Ginsburg, Kagan, Sotomayor


1st Concurring Opinion



1st Dissenting Opinion

Author: Roberts

Joiner(s): Alito

2nd Concurring Opinion



2nd Dissenting Opinion

Author: Thomas


3rd Concurring Opinion



3rd Dissenting Opinion



Other Concurring Opinions:


Terrance Williams was convicted of murder in 1984 and sentenced to death. During the trial, the then-district attorney of Philadelphia, Ronald Castille, approved the trial prosecutor’s request to seek the death penalty against Williams. Over the next 26 years, Williams’s conviction and sentence were upheld on direct appeal, state post-conviction review, and federal habeas review. In 2012, Williams filed a petition pursuant to Pennsylvania’s Post Conviction Relief Act (PCRA). The petition was based on new information that the prosecutor had obtained false testimony from his codefendant and suppressed evidence. Agreeing with Williams, the PCRA court stayed Williams’s execution and ordered a new sentencing hearing. The state asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, whose chief justice was former District Attorney Castille, to vacate the stay. Because of his earlier involvement in the case, Williams filed a motion asking Chief Justice Castille to recuse himself or, if he declined to do so, to refer the motion to the full court for decision. Without explanation, Castille denied Williams’s motion for recusal and the request for its referral. Castille then joined the state supreme court opinion vacating the PCRA court’s grant of penalty-phase relief and reinstating Williams’s death sentence. Two weeks later, Chief Justice Castille retired from the bench.

Arguing that Chief Justice Castille’s denial of the recusal motion and his subsequent participation in the state court’s decision violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, Williams asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear his case.


JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court.


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, the principles on which these precedents rest dictate the rule that must control in the circumstances here. The Court now holds 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 critical decision regarding the defendant’s case.

Due process guarantees “an absence of actual bias” on the part of a judge. Bias is easy to attribute to others and difficult to discern in oneself. To establish an enforceable and workable framework, the Court’s precedents apply an objective standard that, in the usual case, avoids having to determine whether actual bias is present. The Court asks not whether a judge harbors an actual, subjective bias, but instead whether, as an objective matter, “the average judge in his position is ‘likely’ to be neutral, or whether there is an unconstitutional ‘potential for bias.’” Caperton [v. A.T. Massey Coal Co. (2009)]. Of particular relevance to the instant case, the Court has determined that an unconstitutional potential for bias exists when the same person serves as both accuser and adjudicator in a case. This objective risk of bias is reflected in the due process maxim that “no man can be a judge in his own case and no man is permitted to try cases where he has an interest in the outcome.”

The due process guarantee that “no man can be a judge in his own case” would have little substance if it did not disqualify a former prosecutor from sitting in judgment of a prosecution in which he or she had made a critical decision. This conclusion follows from the Court’s analysis in In re Murchison [1955]. That case involved a “one-man judge-grand jury” proceeding, conducted pursuant to state law, in which the judge called witnesses to testify about suspected crimes. During the course of the examinations, the judge became convinced that two witnesses were obstructing the proceeding. He charged one witness with perjury and then, a few weeks later, tried and convicted him in open court. The judge charged the other witness with contempt and, a few days later, tried and convicted him as well. This Court overturned the convictions on the ground that the judge’s dual position as accuser and decisionmaker in the contempt trials violated due process: “Having been a part of [the accusatory] process a judge cannot be, in the very nature of things, wholly disinterested in the conviction or acquittal of those accused.”

No attorney is more integral to the accusatory process than a prosecutor who participates in a major adversary decision. When a judge has served as an advocate for the State in the very case the court is now asked to adjudicate, a serious question arises as to whether the judge, even with the most diligent effort, could set aside any personal interest in the outcome. … In addition, the judge’s “own personal knowledge and impression” of the case, acquired through his or her role in the prosecution, may carry far more weight with the judge than the parties’ arguments to the court. …

The facts of Murchison, it should be acknowledged, differ in many respects from a case like this one. In Murchison, over the course of several weeks, a single official (the so-called judge-grand jury) conducted an investigation into suspected crimes; made the decision to charge witnesses for obstruction of that investigation; heard evidence on the charges he had lodged; issued judgments of conviction; and imposed sentence. By contrast, a judge who had an earlier involvement in a prosecution might have been just one of several prosecutors working on the case at each stage of the proceedings; the prosecutor’s immediate role might have been limited to a particular aspect of the prosecution; and decades might have passed before the former prosecutor, now a judge, is called upon to adjudicate a claim in the case.

These factual differences notwithstanding, the constitutional principles explained in Murchison are fully applicable where a judge had a direct, personal role in the defendant’s prosecution …

This leads to the question whether Chief Justice Castille’s authorization to seek the death penalty against Williams amounts to significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision. The Court now concludes that it was a significant, personal involvement; and, as a result, Chief Justice Castille’s failure to recuse from Williams’s case presented an unconstitutional risk of bias.

As an initial matter, there can be no doubt that the decision to pursue the death penalty is a critical choice in the adversary process. Indeed, after a defendant is charged with a death-eligible crime, whether to ask a jury to end the defendant’s life is one of the most serious discretionary decisions a prosecutor can be called upon to make.

Nor is there any doubt that Chief Justice Castille had a significant role in this decision. Without his express authorization, the Commonwealth would not have been able to pursue a death sentence against Williams. The importance of this decision and the profound consequences it carries make it evident that a responsible prosecutor would deem it to be a most significant exercise of his or her official discretion and professional judgment.

Pennsylvania nonetheless contends that Chief Justice Castille in fact did not have significant involvement in the decision to seek a death sentence against Williams. The chief justice, the Commonwealth points out, was the head of a large district attorney’s office in a city that saw many capital murder trials. According to Pennsylvania, his approval of the trial prosecutor’s request to pursue capital punishment in Williams’s case amounted to a brief administrative act limited to “the time it takes to read a one-and-a-half-page memo.” …

Chief Justice Castille’s own comments while running for judicial office refute the Commonwealth’s claim that he played a mere ministerial role in capital sentencing decisions. During the chief justice’s election campaign, multiple news outlets reported his statement that he “sent 45 people to death rows” as district attorney. Chief Justice Castille’s willingness to take personal responsibility for the death sentences obtained during his tenure as district attorney indicate that, in his own view, he played a meaningful role in those sentencing decisions and considered his involvement to be an important duty of his office …

Chief Justice Castille’s significant, personal involvement in a critical decision in Williams’s case gave rise to an unacceptable risk of actual bias. This risk so endangered the appearance of neutrality that his participation in the case “must be forbidden if the guarantee of due process is to be adequately implemented.” …

Where a judge has had an earlier significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision in the defendant’s case, the risk of actual bias in the judicial proceeding rises to an unconstitutional level. Due process entitles Terrance Williams to “a proceeding in which he may present his case with assurance” that no member of the court is “predisposed to find against him.”

The judgment of the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS, with whom JUSTICE ALITO joins, dissenting.

According to the majority, the Due Process Clause required Chief Justice Castille’s recusal because he had “significant, personal involvement in a critical trial decision” in Williams’s case. Otherwise, the majority explains, there is “an unacceptable risk of actual bias.” In the majority’s view, “[t]his conclusion follows from the Court’s analysis in In re Murchison.” But Murchison does not support the majority’s new rule—far from it …

First, Murchison found a due process violation because the judge (sitting as grand jury) accused the witnesses of contempt, and then (sitting as judge) presided over their trial on that charge. As a result, the judge had made up his mind about the only issue in the case before the trial had even begun. We held that such prejudgment violated the Due Process Clause.

Second, Murchison expressed concern that the judge’s recollection of the testimony he had heard as grand juror was “likely to weigh far more heavily with him than any testimony given” at trial. For that reason, the Court found that the judge was at risk of calling “on his own personal knowledge and impression of what had occurred in the grand jury room,” rather than the evidence presented to him by the parties.

Neither of those due process concerns is present here. Chief Justice Castille was involved in the decision to seek the death penalty, and perhaps it would be reasonable under Murchison to require him to recuse himself from any challenge casting doubt on that recommendation. But that is not this case.

This case is about whether Williams may overcome the procedural bar on filing an untimely habeas petition, which required him to show that the government interfered with his ability to raise his habeas claim, and that “the information on which he relies could not have been obtained earlier with the exercise of due diligence.” The problem in Murchison was that the judge, having been “part of the accusatory process” regarding the guilt or innocence of the defendants, could not then be “wholly disinterested” when called upon to decide that very same issue. In this case, in contrast, neither the procedural question nor Williams’s merits claim in any way concerns the pretrial decision to seek the death penalty.

It is abundantly clear that, unlike in Murchison, Chief Justice Castille had not made up his mind about either the contested evidence or the legal issues under review in Williams’s fifth habeas petition. How could he have? Neither the contested evidence nor the legal issues were ever before him as prosecutor …

The Due Process Clause did not prohibit Chief Justice Castille from hearing Williams’s case. That does not mean, however, that it was appropriate for him to do so. Williams cites a number of state court decisions and ethics opinions that prohibit a prosecutor from later serving as judge in a case that he has prosecuted. Because the Due Process Clause does not mandate recusal in cases such as this, it is up to state authorities—not this Court—to determine whether recusal should be required.

I would affirm the judgment of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, and respectfully dissent from the Court’s contrary conclusion.

JUSTICE THOMAS, dissenting.

Today’s holding departs both from common-law practice and this Court’s prior precedents by ignoring the critical distinction between criminal and postconviction proceedings. Chief Justice Castille had no “direct, personal, substantial pecuniary interest” in the adjudication of Williams’ fourth postconviction petition. And although the majority invokes Murchison, it wrongly relies on that decision too. In Murchison, the judge acted as both the accuser and judge in the same proceeding. But here, Castille did not.

The perceived bias that the majority fears is instead outside the bounds of the historical expectations of judicial recusal. Perceived bias (without more) was not recognized as a constitutionally compelled ground for disqualification until the Court’s recent decision in Caperton v. A. T. Massey Coal Co. (2009). In Caperton, the Court decided that due process demanded disqualification when “extreme facts” proved “the probability of actual bias.” Caperton, of course, elicited more questions than answers (ROBERTS, C. J., dissenting). And its conclusion that bias alone could be grounds for disqualification as a constitutional matter “represents a complete departure from common law principles.” …

The bias that the majority fears is a problem for the state legislature to resolve, not the Federal Constitution …. Officials in Pennsylvania are fully capable of deciding when their judges have “participated personally and substantially” in a manner that would require disqualification without this Court’s intervention. Due process requires no more, especially in state postconviction review where the States “ha[ve] more flexibility in deciding what procedures are needed.”