Friday, June 4, 2010

Special immunity for legislators shouldn't exist

Warwick Beacon

by John Marion

Jun 03, 2010

As the end of the 2010 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly speeds to a quick and early conclusion, a number of important issues have been left waiting. One of those issues involves the jurisdiction (or lack thereof) of the state’s Ethics Commission over the General Assembly itself. Currently state legislators, and only state legislators, are immune from prosecution by the state’s ethics watchdog for their “core legislative acts.” This is a result of the Rhode Island Supreme Court’s 2009 decision in the case of William V. Irons vs. The Rhode Island Ethics Commission.

Common Cause sincerely believes that this special immunity for legislators should not exist and we, along with Operation Clean Government, have proposed an amendment to the Constitution to make sure it no longer does. Furthermore, we believe that when an overwhelming majority of voters in 1986 approved the Ethics Amendment to our Constitution—one that says “all elected and appointed officials . . . shall be subject to the code of ethics”—they meant the General Assembly too. The Supreme Court believes the voters did not make that clear 24 years ago, and that is why a ballot question is needed now. We are asking the General Assembly to put this issue on the November ballot before it is too late.

Unfortunately, the people of the state of Rhode Island may never get a chance to clarify what they meant back in 1986 because the Rhode Island Senate is denying them that opportunity. In the House, Speaker Gordon Fox has sponsored the resolution to put the question on the ballot. By contrast, in the Senate the resolution (sponsored by Senator J. Michael Lenihan of East Greenwich) only got a hearing when the sponsor specifically requested one. After that perfunctory hearing, the Senate resolution was “held for further study,” a designation that is a sort of legislative purgatory.

Why should they do this now? Since the June 2009 Supreme Court decision, there has been no mechanism for enforcing the state’s code of ethics for most of the official actions of our legislators. That means a legislator cannot be prosecuted by the Ethics Commission for voting on a bill that benefits them financially. If we do not put this on the ballot now, then this immunity will extend until at least 2012, and possibly forever.

Why is this important? Building public confidence in the legislative process is a critical ingredient to a successful democracy. People need to believe that their representatives are serving the public interest, and not their personal or special interests. Trust is the glue that binds voters to their representatives, and our amendment seeks to strengthen that bond.

Common Cause calls on the Rhode Island Senate to allow the people to decide this issue. The Senate has known about this problem since the first week in January, and yet five months later the problem persists. Their solution, a system of self-policing, is unwieldy and potentially costly. In the closing days of the session—before rushing out to campaign for re-election—the Senate needs to take up this issue and let the people decide.

John Marion is the executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island.

1 comment:

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