“Another step toward constitutionalizing recusal obligations”

Today the Court decided Williams v. Pennsylvania, which I’ve been covering over at SCOTUSBlog. The decision’s bottom-line rule is fairly intuitive, and the case directly affects only a relatively extreme set of recusal scenarios. But the logic of the decision may sweep more broadly–or so I suggest in my post.

Here’s the opening of the post.

In Williams v. Pennsylvania, the Court ordered the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania to reconsider Terrance Williams’s allegations of prosecutorial misconduct. In doing so, the Court created a new, albeit narrow, constitutional recusal rule: a judge who has had “significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case” must recuse. In this case, that meant that Chief Justice Ronald Castille of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had to recuse from Williams’s post-conviction appeal, since Castille had previously approved the decision to seek the death penalty against Williams.

It’s hard to know what to make of this decision. On the one hand, the Court offered some relief for a plausible instance of judicial bias. On the other hand, the Court’s rule and remedy both seem artificially narrow, particularly given the Court’s own logic. So while immediate effects of the Court’s decision are small, the Court’s decision might eventually come to be seen as an important step in the creation of a new constitutional law of recusal.


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