Well yes, the title of this blog entry requires an explanation. We were originally going to call it “Christmas Comes Early,” referring to yesterday’s Pennsylvania Supreme Court unanimous decision upholding Governor Wolf’s declaration of a moratorium. But that title would suggest that the opinion was a gift – it was not. The Court’s decision relied on 300 years of prior case law, legal treatises, gubernatorial actions, and, last but not least, the Pennsylvania Constitution. Given the scandals that have devastated our courts and prosecutors’ offices over the past few years, it is easy to fall into the trap that an opinion that simply follows the law is a “gift.” Rather, it is critically important that we demand the highest legal standards from our highest court, even when that court is beleaguered.
The decision itself, Commonwealth v. Terrance Williams, is significant for what it says and what it doesn’t say. What it says, specifically, is that Governor Wolf’s decision to grant a reprieve to Terry Williams (and to several others whose executions were pending) was not an abrogation of constitutional duty, but a “valid exercise of constitutional authority.” What it doesn’t say is that a governor’s conscience can be compromised by the political leanings of the District Attorney’s Association, and specifically by Seth Williams, the Philadelphia DA. The Court emphasized that it was not their task to address the wisdom of Governor Wolf’s decision. This blog need not be so restricted.
That the death penalty in Pennsylvania has become a political football cannot be denied. The Court practically said as much:
Governor Wolf issued the reprieve on February 13, 2015, indicating that it will continue until the Task Force’s report is issued and any concerns raised therein are addressed. The Commonwealth initiated an action in this Court five days later, seeking to invalidate the reprieve as unconstitutional. At this time, when the Task Force report has yet to be issued, we cannot conclude as a matter of law that the effect of the reprieve is to permanently suspend Williams’ sentence.
In other words, the Philly DA was so anxious to appeal the governor’s decision that even though he believed the Task Force’s work important enough that he voluntarily agreed to be a member, he didn’t even care to see what the Task Force report might say. Regrettably, such knee-jerk support for the death penalty, in the face of historically low death sentences and executions across the country, is what we have come to expect from Seth Williams.
Governor Wolf, in declaring the moratorium on executions, recognized many of the problems with capital punishment: the unending cycle of death warrants and reversals that is unfair to defendants and victims’ families alike; the racial discrimination; the excessive cost; and the risk of executing an innocent man. Yesterday, the Supreme Court recognized the Governor’s right to exercise his conscience. Not a gift, just a correct decision. Happy Holidays!