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 bench.
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.