Thursday, June 4, 2009

Senate Panel to Consider Extending Law that Expanded Judicial Pool

By Katie Mulvaney

Journal Staff Writer

PROVIDENCE — The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday will hear a bill that would extend by one year the governor’s ability to select state judicial nominees from lists of finalists created over the past five years.

First passed in 2007, the legislation is backed by Governor Carcieri and opposed by the government watchdog group Common Cause Rhode Island. Before its enactment, the governor had to choose a nominee from a list of three to five finalists selected by the Judicial Nominating Commission — only.

Under the 2007 law, due to expire June 30, the governor can choose from lists of finalists generated by the commission for various court seats over the past five years. The law does not pertain to chief judge positions or the Supreme Court. The bill would extend the law to June 30, 2010.

Without the extension, the governor would not be allowed “to reach into a pool of already well-qualified vetted individuals,” Carcieri’s spokeswoman Amy Kempe said. “It broadens the pool.”

But Common Cause opposes the bill. “We think it goes against best practices of merit selection,” said John Marion, Common Cause executive director.

Marion added: “If this is a good way to do it, why not make it permanent?” Extending the measure year-to-year indicates it’s not the best way to select judges, he said.

Kempe said the governor would not be “uncomfortable” with changing the law permanently, but that the General Assembly seemed more comfortable addressing the issue on a year-to-year basis. She referred questions about the one-year extension to the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Leo Blais, R-Coventry, who was out of town.

Rep. Brian C. Newberry, R-North Smithfield, said he submitted the House version of the bill as written at the governor’s request. He speculated that the governor’s office believed it could gain more support if it was extended annually.

“I would have put in a permanent change,” Newberry said. It is aggravating, he said, for judicial candidates to be put through the rigorous selection process year after year. The House bill has been held for further study, but could be revived, he said.

Common Cause dismisses arguments about the process being onerous for candidates for the lifetime judicial posts. “It’s a small price to pay considering what the reward is.”

There are currently seven vacancies on the state judicial bench. Under the law in effect until June 30, Carcieri has 15 candidates to choose from for the District Court opening created by the retirement of Judge Walter Gorman last March, Kempe said. The governor has a pool of 9 to choose from to replace Superior Court Judge Vincent A. Ragosta, who retired last May, and 10 to select from to fill Judge Howard I. Lipsey’s post, she said.

And the Family Court pool grew Wednesday after the Judicial Nominating Commission submitted finalists for the opening created by the death of Family Court Judge Gilbert T. Rocha.

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