Monday, November 30, 2009

Q&A with John M. Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode

Subject: Q&A with John M. Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island

Pub: Rhode Island Lawyers Weekly

Author: Jack Dew

Issue Date: 11/30/2009

Q&A with John M. Marion, executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island
by Jack Dew


Graduated: State University of New York at Binghamton (1994), graduate work at Indiana University

Job: Executive director, Common Cause Rhode Island

Practice area: Common Cause is a non-partisan government reform advocacy organization.
Rhode Island adopted its merit-based judicial selection system in 1994, thanks in part to heavy pressure from Common Cause. Fifteen years later, the process is still evolving, and Common Cause has been advocating for changes that would increase the independence of the Judicial Nominating Commission. Common Cause Executive Director John M. Marion spoke with Lawyers Weekly’s Jack Dew about how far the judicial nominating process has come and where it’s going.

Q. It has been 15 years since the reforms. Have they been an improvement?

A. Yes, I think it has improved some things. Now, the first prerequisite for trying to become a judge in Rhode Island isn’t political connections, and that is the whole key to merit selection. Like any kid in the class, a lawyer can raise their hand and say, “I want to be a judge.” Prior to 1994, you couldn’t do that; you had to call the speaker of the House or the governor or someone close to them.

Q. What isn’t working?

A. The other parts of the system, the other actors, have not been fulfilling their role properly. The Assembly leaders and the governor are responsible for putting people on the commission, and they haven’t been doing that in a timely manner. At one point they reappointed someone even though the statute says there would be no reappointments. The governor currently has a list [of nominees for judgeships] that is five months old even though he is supposed to act within 21 days from the time the JNC sends him the list.

Q. Have there been any attempts to circumvent the system?

A. There have been a couple of attempts to circumvent the system. A law has been in place for three years that lets anyone who makes the list for a certain court but doesn’t get picked to remain eligible for any opening in that court for five years. That goes against the idea that a fresh list of the best qualified people is being given to the governor. Also, at the time the JNC was created, there were one or two magistrates in the court system. Now there are 21, and they don’t go through the merit selection process, so a whole body of judicial officers has been created outside of the system.

Q. How can the JNC be strengthened?

A. They need to indicate in some way that they expect to be treated like a mature institution, and, at the same time, they need to show their independence to the public. There was a proposal a number of years ago to ban ex parte communications between commissioners. We believe that those sorts of measures need to be taken up by the commission.

Q. If you could make a single change to the process, what would it be?

A. I would change the public perception of the process. No one has ever believed that they need to commit the necessary time and resources and attention to this process, so [the JNC] has never received a real budget, a real staff. The commissioners have overstayed their terms, the appointments have been made late, and no one has ever said that we should give this process the best chance we can for it to work as well as it can.

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