Judging by recent news reports, Rhode Island has a few issues with appointing judges as most vividly illustrated by the retirement of Providence Judge Frank Caprio of Caught in Providence. Judge Caprio was eventually named Chief Judge Emeritus of the Providence Municipal Court.
State law, town and city charters have clearly defined the process for appointing municipal judges. When the process is followed, with openness and transparency, it works. When the process is circumvented for political gain, the fallout further erodes the public’s trust in our judicial system.
In Warwick, the mayor nominates municipal court justices and City Council ratifies.
Years ago, late mayor Joe Solomon named Kelly McElroy, daughter of James McElroy, a Ward 4 councilman, to the bench. This caused a mild uproar, but the council ultimately voted to approve the appointment. McElroy abstained. The sausage was made, though the process was ugly.
In Johnston, Town Council alone is tasked with appointing local judges.
Judge candidates traditionally pen letters to council members, seeking their votes.
After serving as Johnston’s Chief Municipal Court Judge for a decade, attorney Jacqueline M. Grasso followed tradition. However, she alleges the mayor-elect controlled the process, chose a candidate and worked behind the scenes to arrange the votes.
No discussion occurred in public session. No reasons for change were given. It was only following persistent questioning that the newly inaugurated mayor and Town Council president offered any rationale behind the change. And they offered only positive endorsements of the chosen candidate — the town’s former Housing Authority executive director and son of another former mayor.
The process was opaque. Discussion was nil. Hard feelings linger.
Elected officials — mayors and councils — would likely chafe at changing the appointment process to an elective event.
Judge elections would benefit no defendant. Rhode Island justice would suffer if judge candidates were transformed into politicking politicians running for another term.
In Cranston, the city’s former Probate Judge has questioned the process behind his replacement. Cranston, at least, formed a Probate Advisory Commission, which held a public hearing in late December. The composition of that commission and the substance of the hearing, however, beg clarification.
The entire judicial appointment process in the Ocean State would greatly benefit from a sanitizing dose of sunlight.
Judge appointments should be the subject of public discourse, not backroom political arm-wrestling.
A judge’s performance should be measured in equal parts fairness and objectivity. We are a nation that believes in separate, but equal branches of government. Rhode Island needs to beef up the firewalls between the judicial and political realms.
New mayors will always want to reward their loyal supporters. The public must demand the executive branch explains its motivations, and answer publicly for changes in judicial consistency.
There may be many good reasons to appoint a new judge. Sunlight will only illuminate those reasons and disperse the dark shadows cast by secrecy.
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