The US Supreme Court [official website] on Monday reversed [opinion, PDF] a case due to the lower courts’ analysis that focused on the presence of actual bias as opposed to an objective probability of actual bias. In Rippo v. Baker [SCOTUSblog materials], Michael Rippo discovered that the judge hearing his criminal case was the subject of a federal bribery investigation, and Rippo believed the same district attorney’s office that was prosecuting him was playing a part in the judge’s bribery investigation. Rippo sought to disqualify the judge based on the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but the judge declined to recuse himself. A later judge denied a motion for a new trial, and the Nevada Supreme Court affirmed. The state courts again denied Rippo’s argument in later proceedings based on the failure to show evidence of actual bias. The Supreme Court reversed, stating that precedent dictates recusal at times where actual bias is absent. “Recusal is required when, objectively speaking, ‘the probability of actual bias on the part of the judge or decisionmaker is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.'” Due to this, the previous judgment was vacated and Rippo’s case was remanded for further proceedings.
The Supreme Court ruled on judicial recusal [JURIST report] last year in Williams v. Pennsylvania [SCOTUSblog materials]. The court held that Pennsylvania’s Chief Justice should have recused himself from a death penalty case in which he formerly served as prosecutor. Terrance Williams was convicted of first degree murder in Philadelphia and sentenced to death. Ronald Castillo was the district attorney in Philadelphia during the trial and was subsequently elected to serve on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court [official website]. Williams then appealed his death sentence to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing misconduct on the part of the Philadelphia prosecutor’s office when Castillo was serving as the district attorney. Castillo did not recuse himself from the case on appeal, claiming that he was not improperly biased. The Pennsylvania court unanimously denied Williams’ appeal, then denied his motion for reconsideration after Castillo retired from the bench.