Monday, June 29, 2009

Supreme Court Extends “Speech in Debate” Immunity to General Assembly

Today the Rhode Island Supreme Court carved out a special immunity from ethical oversight for the General Assembly. In ruling in favor of the plaintiff in William V. Irons vs. Rhode Island Ethics Commission, the Court has decided that the Rhode Island constitution’s “speech in debate” clause shields members of the General Assembly from prosecution by the Ethics Commission on their “core legislative functions” such as voting and speaking.

“Today the Rhode Island Supreme Court dealt a sharp blow to ethical government in Rhode Island” says John Marion, executive director of government reform group Common Cause Rhode Island. The case was a result of an appeal of a Superior Court decision by the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. The Superior Court ruled that former Senate President William Irons was immune from prosecution based on the “speech in debate” clause of the Rhode Island Constitution. Marion added, “By doing this, one of the main tools that the people of the Rhode Island deemed necessary for policing the ethics of Rhode Island government has been removed.”

Common Cause Rhode Island calls on the Rhode Island General Assembly to put on the ballot a proposed constitutional amendment that restores the power of the Ethics Commission to investigate, and if necessary, prosecute members of the General Assembly for any wrongdoing that may occur. Given that the General Assembly has yet to adjourn for 2009, and in the words of Speaker Murphy last Saturday, “we’re a full-time Legislature now” we feel it is incumbent upon them to pass legislation that lets the people decide if members of the General Assembly deserve immunity that no other elected officials in the state enjoy. By passing House bill 6070, or any similar bill that may be introduced as a result of this decision, the Assembly can accomplish this prior to the end of the legislative session and let the people decide in 2010 whether legislators deserve immunity. As Justice Suttell points out in his dissent in this case, it is important to look at the history of what the voters desired in passing the 1986 ethics amendment. Since the majority of the Court disagreed with what we feel the voters wanted, it is time again to let the voters decide.

Common Cause Rhode Island is pleased with the decision of the majority to not take up the question of whether those prosecuted by the Ethics Commission have a right to a separate jury trial. We feel that Judge Darigan’s decision on this matter was correct, and any attempt to remove the ability of the Commission to decide the matters before them (after first providing immunity under “speech and debate”) would be the equivalent of taking two legs out of a three legged stool.

Common Cause filed amicus briefs on behalf of the Ethics Commission in the case.

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