PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – In December 1997, shortly before his 37th birthday, an ambitious state representative and lawyer asked the Providence City Council to appoint him as a part-time judge in the city’s municipal court. The council interviewed him. They liked him for the job.
But just before he was expected to be named to the bench for a four-year term, the city’s legal department issued an opinion that stated he could not serve as a state representative and judge at the same time. The council listened and eventually appointed someone else.
The judicial career of future House Speaker Gordon D. Fox was over before it started.
Seventeen years later, Democratic state Reps. John Lombardi and Daniel McKiernan are poised to become the first state lawmakers appointed to the Providence Municipal Court. The council’s Finance Committee gave Lombardi its blessing on Tuesday and will likely do the same with McKiernan next week.
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So what changed between the time Fox was turned down for a spot on the bench and Lombardi and McKiernan tossed their names in the hat?
On the city side, Charles Mansolillo, the solicitor during the second administration of Buddy Cianci, is no longer working for the city and spends his winters in Boca Raton. Evelyn Fargnoli, the president of the City Council at the time, is 91 and hasn’t represented the city since 1998. Luis Aponte, who became the first Latino to win a seat on the council the same year Fargnoli retired, is now leading the body.
More importantly, a handful of state lawmakers have been appointed to municipal court judgeships in other communities, beginning with former state Sen. Joseph Montalbano, who was actually named to the bench in North Providence shortly before Mansolillo’s opinion ended Fox’s bid. Montalbano is now a state Superior Court judge.
It is the 1997 opinion Montalbano received from the state Ethics Commission that has paved the way for members of the General Assembly to also hold part-time posts in other communities, including Pawtucket Sen. Donna Nesselbush and Newport Rep. J. Russell Jackson, who left his House seat in 2012. The commission ruled that Montalbano’s position as a senator and a judge were “separate and distinct.”
“Very simply, the sovereign the petitioner serves as an elected member of the state Senate is different from the sovereign he would serve as an appointed official in the town of North Providence,” the Ethics Commission wrote.
Reached Thursday, Mansolillo maintained that he stands by the opinion he gave regarding Fox’s appointment. He cited the Code of Judicial Conduct, which says “a judge or judicial candidate shall refrain from inappropriate political activity.” It goes on to say that “upon becoming a candidate for a non-judicial office either in a primary or in a general election,” the judge must resign.
“It was absolutely clear,” Mansolillo told WPRI.com. “I knew right off the bat something was wrong.”
In North Providence, Montalbano argued that the Code of Judicial Conduct said he could hold both posts because “continuing part-time judges” aren’t required to refrain from political activity. At the time, both he and Fox argued Mansolillo’s opinion was a political decision.Nothing blocks council from appointing lawmakers
What is clear is that the Providence City Council, which has the first and last say over municipal judgeships in the city, has the right to appoint Lombardi and McKiernan to the bench. Nothing in the city charter prohibits state lawmakers from becoming judges, according to John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, a good government group.
Marion said one Rhode Island town that does include language in its charter blocking elected officials from holding a judgeship is Portsmouth, which only has a probate court.
“We haven’t seen these sorts of relationships create widespread problems yet, but we should be vigilant to make sure they do not in the future, and if they do we need to think about how best to manage and/or prevent any conflicts,” Marion told WPRI.com.
To be sure, a spot on the municipal court bench is a coveted one in Providence.
Associate judges earn $33,436 a year and the chief judge – currently Frank Caprio Sr., father of the former state treasurer – is paid $52,767. Each judge typically works for one week and then has two weeks off. A fourth judge, Lisa Bortolotti, works in a volunteer capacity. The council Finance Committee has also recommended Caprio and Bortolotti for reappointment.
Municipal court judges are responsible for collecting and administering fines and fees related to parking and traffic tickets as well as environmental violations. Hearings are held Monday through Friday at the Providence Public Safety Complex on Washington Street.
If Lombardi and McKiernan are appointed to the bench, they will replace longtime Judges Catherine Graziano and Anthony Giannini. Graziano informed the council this week that she planned to retire from service. Giannini is scheduled to appear in front of the Finance Committee next week, but council leaders have signaled they are seeking to make a change.
The full council could vote on all the nominees as soon as next Thursday.Dan McGowan ( email@example.com ) covers politics, education and the city of Providence for WPRI.com. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @danmcgowanThis article has been corrected to note that former Rep. J. Russell Jackson left his House seat in 2012.