Rhode Island Courts Could Soon Have Only One Minority Judge

Thursday, December 08, 2016


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Could Rhode Island — a state whose population is more than 25% minority — soon have just one judge of color on the state’s roster of 85 judges and magistrates?

With only four minority judges and no minority magistrates, minorities currently make up less than 5% of the Rhode Island State Judicial Roster.

Currently, Superior Court Associate Justice Walter Stone is on medical leave; District Court Associate Judge William Clifton could be nearing retirement, and District Court Judge Rafael Ovalles is presently the subject of a judicial complaint from both a clerk and attorney that is under review.  

While the future of those three is uncertain, the fourth minority judge, Rossie Harris, Jr. was recently named to Family Court as Associate Justice after serving as a magistrate. 

“We have a problem,” said Jim Vincent, President of the NAACP Providence Branch.  “I’m fairly certain that if you compared the composition of the judicial roster to the diversity of our state, that we would rank among the worst, if not the worst in the country.”

“Massachusetts has had two Supreme Court Chief Justices of color. Minnesota has had a Supreme Court Chief Justice of color. Meanwhile Rhode Island had never had a person of color on the Supreme Court, period,” said Vincent. “Right now the confidence in our courts is in question. No persons of color on the Traffic Tribunal-- or Workers’ Compensation. Three whole courts devoid of anyone of color, in the history of Rhode Island.”

Addressing the Situation

“I think you start off with the recognition that the justice system ought to reflect the people subjected to it,” said Roger Williams University Professor of Law David Logan, who served as the Dean of RWU Law from 2003 to 2014. “We talk about that a lot with police, and I know that [Rhode Island Attorney General Peter] Kilmartin is aware of the lack of diversity among prosecutors, but the other slice of that problem is the people that execute the judicial power .”

“I think to be fair there's a pipeline issue -- the reality is the percentage of minority lawyers is fairly small, and mid-career — who would be candidates for judicial appointments —  is always small,” said Logan. “We're doing the best we can to diversify the bench and bar. It’s only in the last five to six years we've had a substantial number of minority candidates.”

“Governor Raimondo convened a group last spring to talk about this. I’m not aware if anything moved forward on that front - but there was discussions about having more diverse candidates apply and be successful,” said Logan.  “Unfortunately, the Governor hasn't had many judicial appointments, and hasn't made it a focal point of her administration, but hopefully she can take some leadership on the issue.”

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Ray Rickman

Former State Representative and Deputy Secretary of State Ray Rickman spoke to the situation with GoLocal on Wednesday. 

“There are a hundred talented black and Latino lawyers out there who could be judges. In the old days you got on courts by being a state representative, and  it was hard to get to be one, because you couldn't be in the General Assembly unless you came from a certain family. It was a historically white, legislative affair,” said Rickman.  “Now we have a new system but the old rules are essentially still in place. Three people get to make the decision, and there's always a law partner who wants the position.  They really need to say the court needs to be more diverse, and the political people will be selected last — and high quality, and people of color, should be considered first.”

“These Democrats — why do they think people are mad? The Democratic party calls for diversity, it's part of our reason for existence,” said Rickman. “This governor needs to take charge and put a person of color on the bench. There will be four to five vacancies by next June or July, and those should all be people of color.  How radical would it be to appoint four to give people of color in a row?  We've appointed four to five white people all the time up until now. It’s not radical at all.”

Rickman, who until recently served on the State Parole Board, spoke to what he saw from minority prisoners. 

“Those folks feel they've been treated unfairly, so they have no respect for law. Everything they see in front of them is white,” said Rickman. “And even when the judge is being fair, they’ll decide its unfair because a white person did it.”

Court Potential

Both Rickman and Vincent spoke to a black, female candidate for Superior Court that they are urging Governor Raimondo to appoint. 

“Melissa Long -- she's the Chief of Staff for Nellie Gorbea,  she was an attorney at the Department of Transportation,” said Vincent. “The NAACP endorsed Melissa. This was about six weeks ago — I sent a letter of support.”

“We’ve only had one female African American on any court, and that was Rogeriee Thompson,” said Vincent. “There is no woman of color in any of the courts currently.”

“Judge Wiley in 1982 was the first black judge in Rhode Island. The first black judge in Michigan was in the 1840s. We’re a hundred years late,” said Rickman. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Anytime anyone is discriminated against, it should be fixed. I've been a feminist all my life because they're so absent in so many places. We're moving forward -but not as fast as we should.”


Related Slideshow: The Power List - Judiciary and Lawyers, 2016

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Big Cases

John Tarantino — Big cases. Big reach. And big influence.

Tarantino has headed big cases like the defense of the state’s pension reforms and fought against Rhode Island representing the paint industry in the protracted lead paint litigation.

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Top Dog

Michael Kelly — Street fighting litigator that is happy to take on cities, the state, big companies - it does not matter.

Kelly’s cases are often controversial and nuclear. Recently, he beat the Department of Health on the suspension of former State Senator/pharmacist Leo Blais.

Nothing's dull when Kelly is involved.

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Mike Sweeney — From Alex and Ani to BENRUS to representing one of the top venture funds in the region, Sweeney is half corporate attorney and half business consultant.

The co-founder of Duffy and Sweeney, he has been one of the most strategically smart advisers in the state. 

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Frank Williams - The former Chief Justice has been assigned to navigate pension lawsuits, 38 Studios and the Providence Firefighters’ battle with the City of Providence. 

He may have more influence and make more money in his new role then he did when he served as Chief Justice.

As GoLocal wrote in April 2015, “Yet like so much of Williams' career in the public eye, the appointment was not without some degree of controversy. Williams will be paid $400 per hour for his work on the case, (according to a wpri.com report) and that fact led to criticisms on social media and talk radio. 

Williams’ ability to become a lightning rod has been confounding to both Williams and his friends alike.”

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Maureen McKenna Goldberg — Think Diana Ross. She is the lead of the Supremes. Nothing happens in the hallowed chambers of the Rhode Island State Supreme Court without Goldberg’s stamp on it.

With her husband, lobbyist Bob Goldberg making millions in lobbying fees and representing some of the most powerful business interests in business, their reach is wide and deep.

If you want to know what is really happening in the state, then get on their boat one weekend and keep quiet and listen.

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Deal Maker

Zach Darrow — Busy building one of the most dynamic business law firms in the state, complete with nearly a dozen real estate and corporate attorneys. Add to his mix a lobbying arm that functions like Pac-Man when it comes to tax stabilization agreements. 

Darrow’s reach may be a little more complex than many see - the firm now has offices in New York and Miami. 

Everyone took note when former Providence City Solicitor and Chief of Staff to Treasurer Seth Magaziner, Jeff Padwa, joined the firm earlier this summer. Darrow moves in mysterious ways.

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Michael Forte - Stealth. Forte doesn’t get much press and he likes it that way. The new Chief Judge of the Family Court has a low-profile public persona, but is a growing power in the judiciary.

A Democratic legislator who was appointed to the bench under Governor Ed DiPrete, Forte has amassed some serious power-wattage in Rhode Island.

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Knows Both Sides

Artin Coloian - He has enjoyed of the most complicated and seemingly paradoxical careers, as a staffer to both U.S. Senator John Chafee and Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci. A political advisor (and donor) to many — his campaign finance report ranges from Governor Gina Raimondo to GOP Cranston Mayor Allan Fung to Progressive Representative Aaron Regunberg.

Now, Coloian is one of the top criminal attorneys in Rhode Island. He has represented everyone from mobster Bobby DeLuca to Councilman Kevin Jackson to drug kingpins.

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Chris Graham — Whether it is a start-up looking to close venture funding or a biotech looking at acquisition, Graham is a skilled craftsman that makes deals happen.

Understated, Graham is now a managing partner at Locke Lord (formerly Edwards and Angell). He is been through all of the firms mergers and transformations and had quietly continued to make deals happen.

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Henry Kinch — Once a top advisor to then-Governor Bruce Sundlun and now serves as the Clerk of Providence County Courts.

Kinch is highly respected in and out of the court. When smart political people want advice they call Kinch.

His network extends far beyond Benefit Street. He served as President of the Pawtucket City Council and lost to Don Grebien for Mayor in 2010.

Could a political comeback be in the making?

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Behind the Scenes

Claire Richards — She has been crafting the legal strategy for the state of Rhode Island for decades.

She has served in the office of legal counsel for Governors Lincoln Almond (R), Don Carcieri (R), Lincoln Chafee (I/D), and Gina Raimondo (D).

This is not a lifetime appointment - she has served at the pleasure of the Governor for decades. Whether it is a legal strategy on 38 Studios or advising on an appointment, she has been the behind-the-scenes lawyer for the state's top elected officials. 

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Max Wistow — Don’t look for friendly. His biggest fans say Wistow is one of the most aggressive lawyers in Rhode Island. His detractors use words that are unsuitable for publication.

He was selected by Governor Lincoln Chafee to pursue the recovery of the 38 Studios assets from a collection of litigants -- and in total, he recovered over $60 million. 

Some top lawyers are known as a lawyers’ lawyer. Wistow is the lawyer most lawyer would hire to represent them.

Editor's Note: At the time of publication, the recovery was over $40 million, which had been previously noted. The figure has been updated to reflect the total at the conclusion of the legal proceedings, as of 2017. 


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