Monday, February 23, 2009

Bill Aims to Bring New Blood to Judge Selection

By Katie Mulvaney

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - Most members of the commission that helps name state judges to the coveted lifetime posts are serving years past the expiration of their terms, raising criticism that the lack of fresh blood could be politicizing the judicial selection process.
"The longer you have someone in, the greater the chance someone would be tempted to make an appointment not based on merit but on political connections," said state Senator James C. Sheehan, D-North Kingstown.

Sheehan plans to submit legislation Tuesday to change the law that governs the Judicial Nominating Commission so its nine members will no longer serve beyond their one-term limit. He is backed by the government watchdog group, Common Cause Rhode Island.

"I think one can wonder what it means that it's not revolving," said Alan S. Flink, a former commission member who sits on the Common Cause board. If members weren't performing as legislators wanted, they wouldn't remain on the commission, he said.

The concerns come as the commission begins the process to select semifinalists for Governor Carcieri to consider to fill five openings on the state bench, including the Supreme Court chief justice post. More judges are expected to retire if Governor Carcieri succeeds in ending 3-percent annual pension hikes to cut state spending.

Rhode Islanders voted to revamp the judicial nominating system in 1994 after the resignation of two chief justices amid scandal. The changes called for the creation of an independent, nonpartisan commission to take ensure judicial selections based on merits, not politics.

The law dictates that members serve four-year terms, but that they "shall continue" to sit until their successor is appointed.

State leaders have leaned on that language in explaining why some members have remained as many as seven years past their term expirations. And that's what Sheehan hopes to change.

"There is nothing in the statute that mandates a time frame for new appointments," said John Robitaille, the governor's communications director. In addition, the governor has not received lists of possible replacements from House and Senate leaders, he said.

By law, the governor appoints all commission members. Legislative leaders, however, must submit names for him to choose from for five of those positions. The House Speaker and the Senate President have responsibility for one seat each and another together. The House and Senate minority leaders, too, have a single seat each. The governor alone names the remaining four members and selects the chairman.

Six of the nine members are now serving beyond their expired terms. The most outdated is that of William P. Rampone, a Providence lawyer picked as a candidate by former House Speaker John B. Harwood in 1999. His term was up in 2002.

Rampone, 53, defends his tenure, arguing the commission benefits from his familiarity with the lawyers who apply for judgeships and knowledge of the courts. "That's why I'm asked to stay, as a resource," he said.

He bristles at suggestions he might be at all beholden to legislators. "I did no bidding for John Harwood or (House Speaker) Bill Murphy. Both of them are hands off," Rampone said.

He dismisses criticism as "nice theories that have no water. ... Nobody's put any pressure on me at anytime."

Rampone plans to step down after the commission finishes its work selecting candidates for five judgeships this year, he said.

Solomon A. Solomon, 83, has served five years past his term expired. Also a Harwood pick with then Senate Majority Leader William V. Irons, Solomon did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Chairman Stephen J. Carlotti's term ended last June. A Governor Carcieri appointee, Carlotti, 66, said he told the governor he's willing to step down whenever his successor is named.

He cautions that losing several members at one time could hinder the group's work because five votes are needed to forward recommendations to the governor. He said he had never seen evidence that members were being influenced. "I think the commission is working very hard to fulfill its statutory obligations," he said.

The only three commission members who fall within their term limits were selected solely by Carcieri: Dennis Coleman, Mirlen A. Martinez Mal and Carol June Tow. It is the second time a governor named Tow to the commission; she served from 1997 to 2001. The law was changed last year to ban reappointments.

House Speaker Murphy said in an email statement today there is a dire need for judges to be appointed with seven total vacancies on the state bench. The commission made recommendations for two of those seats last summer, but Carcieri has not made appointments, despite a state law directing him to do so in 21 days.

Murphy praised Rampone and Solomon's experience and service on the commission. "With so many vacancies, I don't think it would prudent to submit new names for the Judicial Nominating Committee to the governor at this time," he said.

But Common Cause argues the only way to ensure that the process is free of politics and viewed as open to lawyers, other that probate judges, magistrates and other politically connected attorneys is to make sure it commission membership rotates.
"The whole issue of judges seems to be radioactive on Smith Hill," said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause. "It's a place people get rewarded for loyalty." / (401) 277-7417

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