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Dan Lawlor: RI Needs to Step Up Judicial Nominating Process

Friday, October 26, 2012


"These boots were truly new, but his feet remained old all the same." - Aloysha the Pot, Leo Tolstoy

Gordon Fox ain't no Joseph Bevilacqua - and that's a good thing. However, some of the rewards that have been part of state politics since even before Bevilaqua are still in the RI political playbook today.

Crazy Court Shenanigans

In the 1980s and early 1990s, Rhode Island politics roiled with a series of judicial scandals. Former Speaker of the House Joseph Bevilacqua had himself appointed as Chief Justice to the State Supreme Court, and was repeatedly critiqued for his close ties to mobsters. Shortly after a Providence Journal expose on Bevilacqua, which included an infamous photo of the then Chief Justice leaving a mob-run motel, the former speaker resigned.

In the early 1990s, Mattie Smith, also a former Speaker of the House, was profiled in a multi-part Journal series "Making of an Empire," which revealed inside deals and patronage throughout the court system. Smith was forced out in scandal.

As John Marion of Common Cause profiles in an excellent historical review, "Judging How We Pick Judges: Fifteen Years of Merit Selection in Rhode Island", a series of reform efforts were made following the judicial scandals of the 1980s and early 1990s.

Judicial Nominating Commission (1994)

A key reform, designed to help take the politics out of appointments, was the creation of a non-partisan Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC). The 9 member JNC reviews nominees to fill vacancies and makes recommendations to the Governor for judgeships.

According to the JNC website, the commission "comprises nine Rhode Island residents, of which five are lawyers. By statute, the Commissioners are appointed by the Governor and various legislative leaders. All Commissioners serve as volunteers."

There appear few safeguards for potential conflict of interests. Currently, Ray McAuliffe, a hyper connected lobbyist who has worked for Senator Reed, former Lt. Governor Fogarty, and former Congressman Kennedy, serves on the JNC. Jeff Grybowski, a VP and Chief Administrative Officer at Deepwater Wind, also serves on the committee.

While on paper a noble system, in practice it is clear that lobbyists and connected business people are able to have a firm hand in appointing judges. This can raise some questions.

For instance, Brian Stern, Governor's Carcier's former Chief of Staff, was a relatively recent Judicial Appointee recommended by the JNC.

Court Magistrates

The JNC process, however questionable in practice, is much better than the rise of Court Magistrates. Since the JNC court reform, the assembly has created a new class of near judges. Magistrates are near judges appointed by the General Assembly to serve in the court system. These jobs are 10 year appointments, with salaries in excess of $100,000.

Among current court magistrates includes Joseph Montalbano, former Senate President, Patricia Harwood, wife of former Speaker of the House John Harwood, John McBurney III, a former State Senator, John Flynn, the former legal Counsel for Gordon Fox, Charles "Chuck" Levesque, a former State Senator, Patrick Burke, a public defender and former assistant to former House Speaker William Murphy, among others.

I am not saying that these individual are not qualified to serve. I am saying that one qualification that all have in common is close connection to the inner political leadership at the state house. That should give us pause.

Over a decade, we will invest over $1 million dollars to each of these individuals. Over $1 million to the wife of the former Speaker, the former Senate President, former State Senators, and former aides to people of power. Meanwhile, how many of us know people looking for work? Why can't magistrates go through the same vetting, however imperfect, that actual judges do?

As many Rhode Islanders engage in belt-tightening, look for work in Massachusetts, struggle with property and sales taxes, and live with bus cuts, police cuts, and school cuts, we need to be sure our money is being spent in ways that maximize opportunities for all of us, not just a select group.


In terms of judicial appointments, we have made much progress, and deserve credit. However, to really improve our reputation and the experiences of all people in the state, we must do better to make our judicial appointment process more transparent and accountable. Let's start with a halt on new magistrate appointments until a more transparent review is in place, and a ban on lobbyists nominating judges.


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