In a case of brilliant timing, the Supreme Court today issued a ruling outlining the contours of judicial bias and recusal, holding that due process requires that a judge should recuse him- or herself if they had a significant personal involvement in the case at some earlier point in time, and were involved in a “critical decision involving the defendant’s case.” The case provides an important counterpoint to the allegations of bias made by Donald Trump against Federal District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel.
The case is Williams v. Pennsylvania, and the underlying case is a death penalty case, where a former prosecutor who signed off on the death penalty was, some decades later, on a panel of judges who reviewed a petition from the same defendant. The Supreme Court decided that the judge’s presence as an adjudicator in the case violated Mr. Williams’ due process rights.
We can, and should, draw a sharp contrast between what the Supreme Court has sketched out as a permissible reason for recusal, with the allegations made by Donald Trump about Judge Curiel’s “bias” in the Trump University class action.
Not only has there been no recusal motion filed by Trump’s lawyers, there is both no evidence of improper treatment by Judge Curiel (in fact quite the opposite), and a Judge’s ethnicity is not (and should never) be the basis for seeking to remove a judge from a case.
Judges are people. They come to the bench with life experience, with an ethnic background, with a value system. But the system works because they take an oath to not apply those “biases” to the cases or litigants before them.
Trump’s overt allegations of bias against the judge and the plaintiff’s law firm in the Trump University case - with absolutely no evidence of any potential bias being played out – undermines the system we need to have in place to keep the social order. And it’s worse because he, as the potential leader of our nation, has a role in preserving the social order.
Certainly, bias can motivate inappropriate behavior, and it should be called out. Just weeks ago, the Supreme Court overturned a death penalty conviction of an African American defendant because the prosecutor impermissibly chose an all-white jury. But to call bias out with no evidence of its existence is irresponsible, dangerous, and frankly, unpresidential.