Rhode Island Judicial Selection Continues to Draw Scrutiny

Rhode Island’s use of a version of merit selection for its principal courts has gotten news media attention recently, when Common Cause Rhode Island said participants have acted in a manner that undermines it (see Gavel Grab).

John Marion, executive director for Common Cause RI, said there is a deadline of 21 days for governors to select judges from candidates listed by the Judicial Nominating Commission, but governors have “ignored” it. He also said legislators annually enact legislation that permits the governor to take nominees from outdated candidate lists.

Gavel to Gavel, a publication of the National Center for State Courts, now provides context by reporting on recent developments in the legislature.

Gavel to Gavel reported that annual bills have made eligible for gubernatorial appointment any candidates recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission for the same court in the prior five years.

Currently, two bills  for another annual extension are “on the verge of failure,” and the existing relevant provision is set to expire June 30, according to Gavel to Gavel.

Under Rhode Island’s version of merit selection, the screening commission gives three to five names to the governor, who makes appointments subject to legislative confirmation. The one-year bills have allowed the governor also to consider candidates recommended years earlier for the same court.

This situation was spotlighted when Gov. Lincoln Chafee nominated former state Senate president Joseph Montalbano for a Superior Court judgeship in May. Montalbano was recommended by the Judicial Nominating Commission for a judgeship in August 2010. He was confirmed last month.

A lengthy commentary on the current situation, written by Scott Mackay for Rhode Island Public Radio, was headlined, “Rhode Island Courts: The Insider Lollapalozza.” The commentary listed several concerns:

“Over the years, the Statehouse crowd, both governors and General Assembly poobahs have whittled away at the merit selection system.

“They have carved out the magistrate dodge, scoffed at the time limits on judgeship appointments and wedged capitol lobbyists into the judicial selection panel. This has turned the courts into an insider Lollapalozza of cronyism.”

Magistrates are not subject to the same judicial selection process, are picked by chief judges of certain courts, and their positions have become “the back-door to judgeships,” Mackay explains. Montalbano was a magistrate before his selection for the Superior Court.

The National Center for State Courts is a JAS partner organization.


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