Merit selection should mean just that
by John Marion, John Marion on May 13, 0014
There has been a lot of talk lately about the recent
nomination by Governor Chafee of former Senate President Joseph Montalbano to
the Superior Court. We’d like to take a
minute to explain why this nomination is problematic. Back in 1994 the voters of Rhode Island
created a merit selection system for picking judges in our constitution. This came after two consecutive Chief Justices
of the Rhode Island Supreme Court faced impeachment hearings, and two lower
level judges were convicted of crimes related to their positions on the
The merit selection system consists of an “independent
non-partisan” Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) that solicits and screens
applicants for judicial vacancies. The
JNC holds public hearings on, conducts public interviews of, and holds a public
vote that results in a list of 3-5 names being submitted as part of “a list” to
the Governor. The Governor has 21 days
to nominate someone off that list and submit it to the Rhode Island Senate for
Advice and Consent.
That’s how the system works in theory. In reality the JNC has filled with, among
others, lobbyists and former political party officials. The General Assembly has passed a “look back”
law allowing the Governor to look at any list for a position on that court
(Superior, District, Family, Traffic, Workers Compensation) from the last five
years. And Governors regularly take more
than 21 days, sometimes years, to pick from those lists.
In the case of Mr. Montalbano he was not on a current list
from the JNC, and his appointment was made many, many months after the JNC had
finished its business. Furthermore, he
is currently a judicial magistrate, a type of judicial officer that whose ranks
are often filled with close political allies of the Assembly (the three most
recent appointees include the Speaker’s legal counsel and two former Senators)
and that often serves as a farm team for judicial picks.
Separating the General Assembly from the judicial branch was
one of the explicit goals of reformers back in 1994.
This system clearly has not worked as
anticipated because none of the principles are performing their assigned tasks
as envisioned by those who had a hand it its design.
Those who aspire to sit on the bench and
dispense justice on behalf of the state need to know that they have a fair
shake at being appointed to a judgeship.
If Rhode Island is going to outgrow its reputation as an “I know a guy”
state we need to fix this.
Office: Common Cause Rhode Island
Issues: Money in Politics, Money in Politics