By coincidence, the Supreme Court issued an opinion on whether a judge need recuse himself against the backdrop of Donald Trump's unseemly rant against the "Mexican" judge hearing the lawsuit against Trump University. Williams v. Pennsylvania, unfortunately, will not provide much guidance for the parties in Trump's case.
Ronald Castille was formerly the District Attorney for Philadelphia, and in that capacity made the decision to seek the death penalty against Terrance Williams thirty years ago. The quest was successful, but those who follow capital cases will be unsurprised to learn that Williams is still alive, and his latest effort to avoid the gurney found him pressing the appeal of a post-conviction relief petition in the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Where Ronald Castille now serves as the chief justice.
That court unanimously affirmed the denial of Williams' petition, and last week the Court in Williams decided that Castille should have recused himself. Those looking for the application of a clear constitutional standard in such cases will be disappointed, as those seeking clarity in the law often are. The only articulated principle is that a judge must recuse himself if he has "significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant's case." The Court ships it back to the state supreme court, where the justices, sans Castille, will have to decide whether to reach a different decision than the one they came to while encumbered by Castille's baneful presence. Hard to figure out what's going to happen there, huh?
The one big criminal case remaining to be decided this term is Utah v. Strieff, a case involving the exclusionary rule, which I discussed when it was argued back in February. As I said then, a 4-4 split is likely, so the case will probably end not with a bang, but a whimper.
Down in Columbus, Bennie Adams found himself in front of the Supreme Court for the second time in a year. Last October, the court vacated Adams' death sentence in a somewhat surprising opinion, discussed here. Adams isn't as lucky this time around. He's appealing from the denial of his motion to reopen his appeal for ineffective assistance of appellate counsel, his primary argument being that his lawyer missed a Confrontation Clause issue: the coroner who testified was not the one who performed the autopsy. The problem with that argument is that the Supreme Court decided two years ago in State v. Maxwell that a coroner's report was not prepared in anticipation of prosecution, so it's not testimonial under Crawford. I found that conclusion problematic at the time, and so did the three dissenters, but that's the law. For now, anyway. This has been a hot-button issue in the courts for years, and SCOTUS has yet to weigh in on it.
The Columbus gang also decided In re A.G., holding that the law on allied offenses is the same for juveniles as it is for adults. The result wouldn't seem surprising; allied offense law is based on double jeopardy concepts, and juveniles get the benefit of most constitutional protections. But the three dissenters and the 8th District had taken a strict constructionist view, noting that the allied offense statute, RC 2941.25, referred to "convictions" and not delinquency "adjudications." That argument has a bit of force. The legislature has distinguished between convictions and adjudications in other areas; RC 2901.08, for example, provides that a juvenile adjudication can serve as the basis of a notice of prior conviction, making any sentence mandatory, but not as the basis for a repeat violent offender specification. Still, it's hard to see why A.G. could be sentenced to consecutive terms in a youth prison, when an adult offender could not.
A couple or three interesting decisions from the courts of appeals...
In all the time I've been doing this blog, I can think of maybe two occasions where an appellate court has reversed the trial court's denial of a motion to withdraw a plea. The 7th District's decision in State v. Patrick makes it three. It's a must-read if you've got that issue; the court painstakingly analyzes the various factors at play. Lurking beneath the surface of the legal analysis, though, is the fact that this is a 17-year-old pleading out to murder, and moving to withdraw the plea a few days later on the grounds that he's innocent and didn't understand the ramifications of the plea. A lot of defendants claim that, and few succeed, but this one should have.
The 10th District has developed a reputation as one of the hardest courts on expungement law, and it burnishes that reputation in State v. Hooks. Hooks was acquitted of a charge of patient abuse, and filed a motion to seal the records. The motion did nothing more than cite the statutory requirements, , so the panel may be correct in concluding that since the law requires the trial court to balance the defendant's interests in sealing the records against the state's interest in maintaining them, Hooks loses because she violated Allen's Law and didn't show up at the hearing.
Still, the panel's language is disconcerting, especially its citation of precedent from the 10th that the defendant has the burden of showing that her interests outweigh the state's. That might be appropriate for expungement, but if you've been acquitted of a crime, I don't see what interest the state might possibly have in keeping your arrest a public matter.
And yo mama's fat, too. In State v. Smith, the defendant seeks to fire his lawyer on the morning of trial on a misdemeanor charge, prompting the judge to declare that the defendant was "exercising his constitutional right to be stupid." The judge permits the lawyer to withdraw, and allows Smith to defend himself without the necessary Faretta hearing to determine if he's qualified to do so. The 6th District reverses, finding that "the court's conduct towards appellant fell far short of satisfying the appearance of justice."