PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Gov. Gina Raimondo on Tuesday rolled out what her advisers described as a historic set of six judicial nominations that will further diversify the makeup of the bench in Rhode Island.
Raimondo’s picks for the highly coveted lifetime appointments include the R.I. Supreme Court’s first person of color and first female majority; the first Asian-American on the R.I. Superior Court; and the first Latina on the R.I. Family Court.
“I am thrilled to appoint this group of talented public servants to our state’s highest courts,” Raimondo said in a statement. “As governor, one of my most important and sacred responsibilities is to appoint high-caliber judges who reflect the diversity of the Rhode Islanders they serve. I am confident that each of these nominees will fairly and honorably uphold the laws and values of our state.”
R.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Suttell said, “The governor’s judicial selections today are truly historic and reflect her continuing commitment to diversifying the Judiciary.”
It’s possible the nominees could receive confirmation votes next week, with the House and Senate set to return to Smith Hill for a special session to tackle the still-pending state budget. Unlike most judicial appointments, which only require Senate approval, both the House and the Senate must vote on nominees to the Supreme Court.
The House Judiciary Committee plans to meet Monday at 3 p.m. to consider the two Supreme Court nominees, a spokesperson said.
For the Supreme Court, Raimondo made two nominations, both women: Superior Court Associate Justice Melissa Long and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Erin Lynch Prata, D-Warwick. They would replace Justice Gilbert Indeglia, who retired earlier this year, and Justice Francis Flaherty, who is also retiring.
If confirmed, Long and Lynch Prata will join Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg, appointed in 1997, to create the first-ever female majority on the five-member high court. They will also be the first justices appointed by a Democratic governor in years.
Long, a Providence resident, was a Raimondo appointee to the Superior Court in 2017. She was previously a high-ranking official in the secretary of state’s office and before that the R.I. Department of Transportation. She graduated from the University of Virginia and the George Mason University School of Law.
Describing herself as “honored” and “humbled,” Long said in a statement, “As the great, great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of two U.S. Army veterans who married six months prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, I am acutely aware of the impact that our judiciary can have on the everyday lives of our citizens.”
Lynch Prata, a Warwick resident, was first elected to the Senate in 2008 and has chaired the Judiciary Committee since 2017. She is an attorney in private practice and was a law clerk to McKenna Goldberg years ago. She graduated from Boston College and The Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law.
As a sitting lawmaker, Lynch Prata had faced questions about whether her appointment would violate the state’s revolving-door rules, but she had the strong support of Senate leaders and has been a Raimondo ally at the State House. The Ethics Commission rejected a staff opinion that she was ineligible.
“On behalf of the Supreme Court, we welcome Erin Lynch Prata and Melissa Long,” said Suttell, the chief justice. “They have big shoes to fill, but I have every confidence that with their varied experiences and knowledge of the law, they will be invaluable colleagues on the Court.”
For Superior Court, Raimondo nominated Linda Rekas Sloan, a counsel at Fidelity National Title Group, who would be the first Asian-American to serve on the Superior Court, as well as Richard Raspallo, a current Superior Court magistrate and former legal counsel to outgoing House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello.
Rekas Sloan graduated from Providence College and the Boston University School of Law, while Raspallo graduated from the University of Rhode Island and the Roger Williams University School of Law.
Among those praising Raimondo’s choice of Rekas Sloan was Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, the governor’s two-time Republican opponent, and a longtime champion of Asian American representation in state and federal government:
For Family Court, Raimondo nominated Elizabeth Ortiz, a Central Falls Municipal Court judge, who would become the first Latina on the Family Court as a first-generation Colombian-American. She graduated from the Community College of Rhode Island, Roger Williams University and the Roger Williams University School of Law.
For Workers’ Compensation Court, Raimondo nominated Kevin Reall, an attorney in private practice and former General Assembly staffer. He graduated from Providence College and the Suffolk University School of Law.
John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, offered a mixed response to the nominations, hailing the history made but also noting that Raimondo is only the latest governor to ignore the letter of the law regarding the speed of her selections.
“It’s a historic day for the Rhode Island Judiciary — something that we should celebrate — but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the revolving door is dead and the magistrate loophole remains,” Marion tweeted, referring in the latter case to the General Assembly’s recent creation of a new class of junior judges — magistrates — who are not vetted by the voter-approved Judicial Nominating Commission.
“Also worth noting that Raimondo sat on two of these lists for 18 months and got one of them last night,” Marion added, referring to the Judicial Nominating Commission lists the governor chooses from. “That’s not a sign of a healthy process. Many lawyers had to wait a year and a half to discover their fate, and one who made last night’s list likely wasn’t even interviewed.”
While many of Lynch Prata’s colleagues are expected to back her appointment enthusiastically, state Sen. Sam Bell, a dissident Providence Democrat, tweeted: “It would be exceptionally wrong if we moved forwards on the nomination of Senator Lynch Prata before the Ethics Commission has even issued an opinion.”
The R.I. Republican Party was even more critical.
“This is a sad day in Rhode Island, when it comes to ethics and the judicial merit selection process,” GOP Chairwoman Sue Cienki said in a statement. “Senator Erin Lynch Prata and her allies have destroyed the revolving door prohibition. Not only that, but they have made a mockery of the judicial merit selection process. … The corrupt judicial selection politics that Rhode Islanders thought had ended a generation ago is clearly back for all to see.”
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