Unbiased Judge

Amdt5. Unbiased Judge

Fifth Amendment:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

As noted, the provisions of the Bill of Rights now applicable to the states contain basic guarantees of a fair trial—right to counsel, right to speedy and public trial, right to be free from use of unlawfully seized evidence and unlawfully obtained confessions, and the like. But this does not exhaust the requirements of fairness. “Due process of law requires that the proceedings shall be fair, but fairness is a relative, not an absolute concept. . . . What is fair in one set of circumstances may be an act of tyranny in others.” 1 Conversely, “as applied to a criminal trial, denial of due process is the failure to observe that fundamental fairness essential to the very concept of justice. In order to declare a denial of it . . . [the Court] must find that the absence of that fairness fatally infected the trial; the acts complained of must be of such quality as necessarily prevents a fair trial.” 2

For instance, bias or prejudice either inherent in the structure of the trial system or as imposed by external events will deny one’s right to a fair trial. Thus, in Tumey v. Ohio3 it was held to violate due process for a judge to receive compensation out of the fines imposed on convicted defendants, and no compensation beyond his salary) “if he does not convict those who are brought before him.” Or, in other cases, the Court has found that contemptuous behavior in court may affect the impartiality of the presiding judge, so as to disqualify such judge from citing and sentencing the contemnors.4 Due process is also violated by the participation of a biased or otherwise partial juror, although there is no presumption that all jurors with a potential bias are in fact prejudiced.5

Snyder v. Massachusetts, 291 U.S. 97, 116, 117 (1934). See also Buchalter v. New York, 319 U.S. 427, 429 (1943). back
Lisenba v. California, 314 U.S. 219, 236 (1941). back
273 U.S. 510, 520 (1927). See also Ward v. Village of Monroeville, 409 U.S. 57 (1972). But see Dugan v. Ohio, 277 U.S. 61 (1928). Similarly, in Rippo v. Baker, the Supreme Court vacated the Nevada Supreme Court's denial of a convicted petitioner's application for post-conviction relief based on the trial judge's failure to recuse himself. 137 S. Ct. 905 (2017). During Rippo's trial, the trial judge was the target of a federal bribery probe by the same district attorney's office that was prosecuting Rippo. Rippo moved for the judge's disqualification under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause, arguing the “judge could not impartially adjudicate a case in which one of the parties was criminally investigating him.” Id. at 906. After the judge was indicted on federal charges, a different judge subsequently assigned to the case denied Rippo's motion for a new trial. In vacating the Nevada Supreme Court's decision, the Supreme Court noted that “[u]nder our precedents, the Due Process Clause may sometimes demand recusal even when a judge 'ha[s] no actual bias.' 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.” Id. at 907 (quoting Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. LaVoie, 475 U.S. 813, 825 (1986); Withrow v. Larkin, 421 U.S. 35, 47 (1975)). Bias or prejudice of an appellate judge can also deprive a litigant of due process. Aetna Life Ins. Co. v. LaVoie, 475 U.S. 813 (1986) (failure of state supreme court judge with pecuniary interest—a pending suit on an indistinguishable claim—to recuse). back
Mayberry v. Pennsylvania, 400 U.S. 455, 464 (1971) ( “it is generally wise where the marks of unseemly conduct have left personal stings [for a judge] to ask a fellow judge to take his place” ); Taylor v. Hayes, 418 U.S. 488, 503 (1974) (where “marked personal feelings were present on both sides,” a different judge should preside over a contempt hearing). But see Ungar v. Sarafite, 376 U.S. 575 (1964) ( “We cannot assume that judges are so irascible and sensitive that they cannot fairly and impartially deal with resistance to authority” ). In the context of alleged contempt before a judge acting as a one-man grand jury, the Court reversed criminal contempt convictions, saying: “A fair trial in a fair tribunal is a basic requirement of due process. Fairness of course requires an absence of actual bias in the trial of cases. But our system of law has always endeavored to prevent even the probability of unfairness.” In re Murchison, 349 U.S. 133, 136 (1955). back
Ordinarily the proper avenue of relief is a hearing at which the juror may be questioned and the defense afforded an opportunity to prove actual bias. Smith v. Phillips, 455 U.S. 209 (1982) (juror had job application pending with prosecutor’s office during trial). See also Remmer v. United States, 347 U.S. 227 (1954) (bribe offer to sitting juror); Dennis v. United States, 339 U.S. 162, 167–72 (1950) (government employees on jury). But, a trial judge’s refusal to question potential jurors about the contents of news reports to which they had been exposed did not violate the defendant’s right to due process, it being sufficient that the judge on voir dire asked the jurors whether they could put aside what they had heard about the case, listen to the evidence with an open mind, and render an impartial verdict. Mu’Min v. Virginia, 500 U.S. 415 (1991). Nor is it a denial of due process for the prosecution, after a finding of guilt, to call the jury’s attention to the defendant’s prior criminal record, if the jury has been given a sentencing function to increase the sentence which would otherwise be given under a recidivist statute. Spencer v. Texas, 385 U.S. 554 (1967). For discussion of the requirements of jury impartiality about capital punishment, see discussion under Sixth Amendment, supra. back

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