The NCSL Blog


By Lisa Soronen

Perhaps the clearest path to becoming a judge is starting as a prosecutor. But some cases—particularly death penalty cases—span decades. Does a judge presiding over a case his office worked on when he was prosecutor have to recuse himself, particularly if his vote wouldn’t make a difference in the outcome of the case?

TNoosehat is what the U.S. Supreme Court will decide in Williams v. Pennsylvania.

Terrance Williams was sentenced to death for killing Amos Norwood during a 1984 robbery in Philadelphia when Williams was 18. Williams claimed at trial he did not know Norwood, who was 56.

In 2012 Williams’ co-conspirator Marc Draper revealed, among other things, that the prosecutor urged him to falsely testify that the motive for the murder was robbery, not that Norwood had sexually abused Williams, and the prosecutor wrote an undisclosed letter to the parole board on behalf of Draper. A hearing revealed the prosecutor failed to disclose extensive evidence of Norwood’s homosexual attraction to teenagers.

The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania reversed the lower court’s decision to reverse Williams’ death sentence. The court concluded that Williams was aware at trial “of potential witnesses and information that would establish Norwood’s homosexual attraction to teenage males.”

One of the justices deciding the case was Justice Ronald Castille. He was the elected prosecutor during Williams’ trial and earlier appeal, and in that capacity he approved pursuing the death penalty in this case. He campaigned for judge citing the number of defendants he had sent to death row (45), including Williams. But his vote in this case was not decisive.

The U.S. Supreme Court will decide two issues in this case. First, whether Castille’s decision not to recuse himself despite his previous involvement with this case and his public statements about the death penalty violate the Eighth and 14th amendments. Second, the court will decide whether it matters that Castille’s vote wasn’t decisive.

Williams argues that the right to a “fair and impartial tribunal” was not met in this case where Castille was part of the “accusatory process” and campaigned to enforce the death penalty. Pennsylvania responds by noting that Castille wasn’t personally involved in litigating this case while he was the elected prosecutor of an office employing 225 attorneys and disposing of 50,000 cases annually.

Both parties acknowledge that the lower courts are divided over the question of whether bias of a judge violates due process even though the biased judge does not cast the decisive vote.

Lisa Soronen is the executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and writes frequently for the NCSL blog about the U.S. Supreme Court.



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This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.