Castille’s Big Win

Did Ronald Castille make the right decision when he decided that Terrence Williams needed to die?  Ronald Castille thinks so.  And really, shouldn’t that be good enough?

The mid-level appellate court didn’t think so.  Even worse, it didn’t take kindly to the fact that prosecutors knew that their star witness lied on the stand as to Williams’ purported motive to kill Amos Norwood.  He testified that it was a robbery, but he told prosecutors before trial that Williams killed Norwood because he sexually abused Williams, as well as other young boys.  The court condemned the prosecutors for concealing this evidence, for knowingly allowing their witness to lie to conceal from the jury the true motive for the killing.

But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court disagreed.

A state court found that the prosecutors had lied, and vacated Mr. Williams’s sentence. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimously reversed that ruling. The court’s chief justice at the time, Ronald Castille, wrote a concurring opinion criticizing the lower court’s ruling for “condemning” the prosecutors.

The problem was that Mr. Castille himself led the district attorney’s office when it prosecuted Mr. Williams, and personally authorized seeking the death penalty in that case. When he later ran for a seat on the State Supreme Court, he advertised to voters his tough-on-crime record, and the fact that he had sent 45 people to death row. Nevertheless, he refused to recuse himself from Mr. Williams’s case.

A little conflict, perhaps?  The Supreme Court heard oral argument in Williams v. Pennsylvania, which would appear to be a slam dunk as to the impropriety of Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice Ronald D. Castille’s sitting in judgment of his own office’s actions when he was the district attorney who decided to go for Williams’ death. But the question wasn’t so easily answered.

Somewhat surprisingly, neither side put forward a clear constitutional test. Instead, both sides of the case argued for standards. Early on, for instance, Lev asserted that the Constitution demands recusal “when the prosecutor has direct personal involvement in a substantial decision in the case, and the issue before the court reflects upon that decision.” But that test calls for judgments about what is a “substantial decision” as well as about what types of claims “reflect upon that decision.” Justice Anthony Kennedy in particular pounced on this point, suggesting that Williams should lose under his own proposed test. The prosecutor’s decision to seek capital charges, after all, didn’t directly relate to the Brady claim that now forms the gist of Williams’s claim.

The issue really isn’t whether a reviewing judge should be a neutral arbiter, but rather what test should be used to determine how un-neutral a judge must be before recusal is required, how involved, and in what decisions.

But this raises a very different issue, as is apparent to anyone who has ever voted in a judicial election.  A lot of judges were former prosecutors. A lot of judges run for office based upon their record as former prosecutors. A lot of judges promote the fact that they sent some huge number of defendants to prison. And some number of defendants to their death. Proud as peacocks, they are. And they get elected.

Even if the court does the right thing and rules that Mr. Williams’s constitutional rights were violated, that will not fix the much broader problem of elected judges. Studies have found that when judges must convince voters to put them on the bench, criminal defendants are among the biggest losers. Elected judges hand out longer sentences the closer they are to re-election and are less than half as likely as appointed judges to reverse death sentences. Even the number of judicial-campaign ads on television has an effect: The more there are, the less likely judges are to rule in favor of criminal defendants.

At Fault Lines, Chris Seaton wrote about one particularly nasty judge, whose nickname was the “blue-eyed assassin.”


Seriously, could she look any nastier, meaner, more . . . oh wait. She looks pretty nice, actually. Kinda sweet, benign, the girl-next-door thing.  And when she ran for judge, “Mandy” didn’t hide her feelings about what she would do with her power. Indeed, it was the basis for her campaign.

Unfortunately, all of this was probably quite predictable. Sammons’s campaign for judge, after all, touted her prosecutor nickname of “the blue-eyed assassin” and the fact she spent “nearly every day of the past 10 years . . . seeking justice for victims of crime,” also noting her “low tolerance for foolishness” and “reputation as hard-nosed prosecutor who ‘goes for the jugular.’” Here was her goal running for judge:

If elected county judge, Mandy’s goal is to make the entire criminal justice system in Campbell County at the sessions and juvenile levels much more efficient and more respectful of the VICTIMS ~ NOT the criminals.

And so her constituents voted for her, and her performance on the bench was every bit as vicious and outrageous as she promised she would be.

Ronald Castille is no more evil than Sammons, or any judge who runs for the bench on a promise of unfairness, that they will sit not as a neutral arbiter but as an avenging angel with an agenda to be harsh and unfair.  And when a judge fulfills that promise, can the public be heard to complain?  Has that judge not served the public exactly as they promised they would?

There is no question that Castille’s sitting as judge in a case for which he bears some, if not significant, responsibility emits an exceptionally unpleasant stench. It offends any sense that judges should be neutral. But then, if that was how people believed, why the hell did they elect him in the first place?  They knew what they were buying, and got it in spades. Chief Justice Castille’s point of view was as clear as could be, and he made no apologies for doing the job he was elected to do.

If the measure for recusal is a judge’s sound discretion and decency, then Castille did exactly what was expected of him. He kept his campaign promise, and made sure that a guy who needed killing got what he deserved. What more could you ask of a judge?

6 thoughts on “Castille’s Big Win

  1. John Barleycorn

    Well, they could learn a thing or two about how far a good manicure will go when a lot of pointing will be done during motion and sentencing hearings.

  2. OEH

    A certain US presidential candidate has suggested that federal judges should be elected as well. Someone who can be presumed to understand very well what the consequences of that would be.

    1. SHG Post author

      The only ramifications of such a suggestion is that he’ll need a full-time in-house constitutionsplainer. Who uses small words.

      1. OEH

        Well, it was Ted Cruz and his suggestion was a constitutional amendment. What scares me is that so many people think that that would actually be an improvement.

  3. John Barleycorn

    Just why these delicately brutal ramification perspective posts of yours don’t get more comments is beyond me.

    The stadium light tinkering is endlessly concerning. If I am missing something I sure as hell hope it comes subtly warm and quick.

    Justice evolving into a stanky nasty funk of epic quandaries of simple proportion before it slowly peaks is oddly paradoxical.

    Nothing but respect for your ability to keep the lid on while having a look esteemed one.

    I got nothing.

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