PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The R.I. Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to reject the advice of its own staff members and clear the path for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata to seek a soon-to-be-vacant seat on the R.I. Supreme Court.
Under Rhode Island’s revolving-door rules, state lawmakers are not allowed to seek other state offices until they have spent at least a year out of the General Assembly. But Lynch Prata made the novel argument that a Supreme Court seat is a constitutional office and therefore falls under the same exemption as running for a general officer post such as governor or treasurer.
“The decision by the Ethics Commission today affirms what I believe Rhode Island law clearly states; a Supreme Court justice is a constitutional office,” Lynch Prata, D-Warwick, said in a statement. “I thank the commission for the time they spent and the diligence in reviewing my request.”
But the Ethics Commission’s staff had a different view, urging the panel to deny Lynch Prata’s request for an advisory opinion clearing her path to seek the judgeship. And the commission’s decision to spurn that advice drew a strong rebuke from Common Cause Rhode Island, the state’s leading good-government group.
“Common Cause Rhode Island is sickened by the events that unfolded at today’s meeting of the R.I. Ethics Commission,” the group said in a statement. “A majority of the commission members ignored the staff’s sound legal interpretation of the Code of Ethics in order to give a pass through the revolving door to Senator Lynch Prata.”
“In doing so the commissioners ignored the plain meaning of the law and turned their back on both legal precedent, and a 30-year fight to end backroom deals and establish an independent judiciary for our state,” the statement continued. “Until the playing field is truly level, Rhode Island will never get the government and judiciary it deserves, one that is truly reflective of our great and diverse state.”
R.I. Republican Party Chair Sue Cienki had a similar reaction, saying the commission’s members “should be embarrassed” and suggesting a backroom State House deal was afoot.
“A Supreme Court judgeship is not an elected constitutional office; it is an appointed position,” she said. “By opening the revolving door for legislators to go directly to the Supreme Court, a majority on the Ethics Commission voted to go back to the corrupt judicial selection politics that existed a generation ago when two consecutive chief justices, who were former legislators, resigned in disgrace.”
Two members of the commission, Marisa Quinn and Timothy Murphy, voted to approve the staff decision, while five members — Arianne Corrente, Kyle P. Palumbo, M. Therese Antone, J. Douglas Bennett and Emili B. Vaziri — voted against. The commission’s own lawyer sided against the staff opinion, as well.
The state’s highest court will soon have its first vacancy in a decade with the June 30 retirement of Justice Gilbert Indeglia, who announced plans to step down back in January. Those who want to succeed him had to submit their names to the Judicial Nominating Commission for review by April 30. The governor’s eventual pick must win approval from both the House and the Senate.
Lynch Prata, a 44-year-old attorney first elected in 2008, has the strong support of Senate President Dominick Ruggerio and has been one of Raimondo’s more high-profile allies in the General Assembly.
However, the revolving door issue isn’t the only reason that Lynch Prata would be a controversial pick for the governor. Raimondo is also under mounting pressure to nominate a person of color to the bench, which is currently made up of all elderly white justices.
“We are stronger through diversity which is why I am deeply troubled @GinaRaimondo (whom I supported) has not yet committed to an African American to fill this Supreme Court Vacancy,” state Rep. Joe Almeida, D-Providence, tweeted on Monday.
Added Michael Yelnosky, outgoing dean of the Roger Williams University Law School: “While it is understandable that Governor Raimondo will not foreclose consideration of all highly qualified candidates for SCOTRI vacancy, I am hopeful that she knows how important it is for the Court to not be an all-white institution.”
Ted Nesi (email@example.com) is WPRI 12’s politics and business editor and a Target 12 investigative reporter. He is a weekly panelist on Newsmakers and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook