Thursday, November 5, 2009

Suggested gift for the courts: A new judge

By Edward Fitzpatrick

Nearly a year has passed since District Court Chief Judge Albert E. DeRobbio Sr. died, yet Governor Carcieri has not nominated a replacement.

The Judicial Nominating Commission selected five finalists for the vacancy on June 3. Carcieri began interviewing at least some of the candidates before the commission had even picked those finalists (in careless disregard for the merit-selection process approved by voters in 1994). At the time, the governor’s spokeswoman explained that Carcieri had jumped the gun “out of an economy of time” so he could pick a nominee before the end of the legislative session. Yet here we are in November, and the governor has not chosen a nominee.

No doubt, the governor is facing a ballooning budget deficit and a deflating state economy, and he has made some fine picks to head the Supreme Court and Superior Court.

But state law says, “The governor shall fill any vacancy within 21 days of the public submission by the commission.” And while you might cut him slack for blowing the deadline once, Carcieri has made it a routine, leaving one Superior Court seat vacant for more than a year.

So why hasn’t the governor filled the top spot on the District Court — a busy venue that DeRobbio proudly called “the people’s court”? Why hasn’t he picked from a list that includes four District Court judges?

Carcieri spokeswoman Amy Kempe said, “The governor made a flurry of judicial appointments in the last few weeks of the General Assembly session, and he is continuing the vetting process. The chief judge of the District Court is a very important position of a very busy court system, and the governor wants to make sure he has the opportunity to meet with all the candidates and appoint the best person for the job.”

Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said governors originally had seven days to pick from lists of finalists. That deadline was extended to 21 days, but now Carcieri is “wholesale ignoring it” and, with no penalty for missing it, he “feels free to disregard it,” he said.

Yet appointing judges “is one of the core responsibilities of the executive. It should be a priority rather than an afterthought,” Marion said. “By not having a full complement of judges, we are not going to exercise the proper measure of justice. And it’s not just about justice. It’s about the legitimacy of government. If elected leaders don’t follow the law themselves, people lose faith.”

Rhode Island Bar Association President Victoria M. Almeida said, “While we would like appointments to be expeditious, it is more important to me and the bar that they be wise appointments.” She said the District Court “is not in paralysis,” acting Chief Judge Michael A. Higgins “has a long distinguished judicial career, and we have some of the best judges anywhere in that court.”

Almeida said, “Our democratic process, while imperfect, is more perfect than most, and it requires that judicial appointments receive the advice and consent of the Senate. Sometimes political consensus is necessary and is a challenge even in the most robust times.”

Still, if DeRobbio were alive, I bet he’d be urging the governor to act. In a January interview, Carcieri recalled that DeRobbio used to tell him, “Governor, I need [judges], I need them, get them to me, will you?” And as soon as he’d appoint one judge, DeRobbio would say, “Get the next one to me.”

So Carcieri need not wonder what to get the District Court for the holidays: a chief judge.