Friday, June 5, 2009

Carcieri Criticized for Interviewing Some Contenders for District Court Chief Judgeship before Nominating Commission Selections Were Made

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — The Judicial Nominating Commission on Wednesday selected five finalists for Governor Carcieri to consider for chief judge of the District Court, the post held by the late Albert E. DeRobbio Sr. But the governor began interviewing at least some candidates before the commission even took its vote.

“It’s true, and it’s out of an economy of time,” Carcieri’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe, said. The governor wanted, she said, to get a jump on the process, so he could forward a nominee to the Senate before the close of the session.

But news of the interviews drew concern from a member of the nominating panel and from the government watchdog group Common Cause of Rhode Island.

“I was surprised …,” commission member D. Faye Sanders said of learning, hours before the vote, that Carcieri had already interviewed the acting chief judge, Michael A. Higgins, and District Court Judge Stephen P. Erickson. “I don’t know the rationale.”

“I believe the process should be there for everyone. Those who weren’t sitting judges, how does that make them feel?” she said.

Kempe refused to disclose which of the seven people seeking the post the governor had met with, saying he only “intended to meet with as many as humanly possible.” She would not say whether the governor had followed a similar process with any of the six other vacancies on the courts.

Rhode Islanders voted in 1994 to create the independent, nonpartisan Judicial Nominating Commission to remove politics from judicial selection, after two chief justices resigned in scandal. The nine-member commission was to submit a list of three to five candidates for the governor’s consideration, based on merit.

Seven vied for DeRobbio’s post: Higgins; District Court Judges Elaine T. Bucci, Stephen P. Erickson and Jeanne E. LaFazia; the governor’s chief of staff, Brian P. Stern; Board of Elections executive director Robert Kando and John E. DeCubellis Jr., legal counsel for National Education Rhode Island. On Wednesday, the commission voted to forward to the governor the names of the four sitting judges and Stern. The position has a lifetime tenure and a base salary of $150,934.

DeCubellis said he had an “informal” interview with the governor May 19. It was unclear, he said, if the meeting was about the chief judge post or a District Court seat he previously applied for. He did not view it as problematic because the meeting obviously didn’t influence the list generated by the nominating panel, he said.

Kando said he was not approached by the governor and speculated that it could be deduced whom the panel would choose based on past performance.

LaFazia and Bucci said they were already scheduled, prior to the panel’s Wednesday vote, to be interviewed by the governor in the coming week. Bucci said she was told the interview was being arranged early due to timing. “It’s not the way it’s usually done, but I accepted it,” Bucci said. LaFazia declined to discuss the meeting further.

Erickson would not confirm being interviewed. Calling it an internal process, Erickson said, “That’s not something I’m comfortable discussing.” Higgins did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Sanders credited commission Chairman Stephen J. Carlotti with working to make the judicial selection process “fair, across-the-board and transparent.”

“I think we should do everything to maintain the credibility,” she said.

Carlotti said he, too, learned Thursday about the governor’s early interviews. “It’s not my position to comment of what the governor decides,” he said.

Common Cause executive director John Marion dismissed the rationale given by the governor’s spokeswoman.

“For the governor to be seen acting out of order for that position is highly problematic,” Marion said, particularly given that Stern, the governor’s chief of staff, is vying for the post.

“Any attempt to say they need to speed up their process at the 11th hour is ironic given that they’ve been sitting on lists for 12 months,” he said.

The nominating panel forwarded finalists for a Superior Court seat and a District Court seat last July. Though the law requires him to pick a nominee within 21 days of receiving a list, the governor has not filled either vacancy. The governor’s office has said it views that time frame as advisory.

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