Common Cause Rhode Island proposes putting magistrates under our merit selection system. When Rhode Islanders amended our constitution in 1994 to create merit selection of judges there were only a handful of judicial officers known as magistrates in the court system. Two decades later, there are almost two dozen magistrates. These judicial officers, who possess many of the same powers as judges in Rhode Island, are selected through an opaque process that is subject to political manipulation. We propose using the Judicial Nominating Commission to recruit and vet a diverse pool of candidates, with the final selection being made by the governor with advice and consent from the state Senate.
The 1994 constitutional amendment creating merit selection did not include magistrates. This is not surprising. In 1994, there were only five magistrates throughout the court system: two in Superior Court, two in Family Court, and one in District Court. Since 1994 and the establishment of merit selection, however, there has been an explosion of magistrate appointments. In 2008, 19 individuals served as magistrates throughout the court system: five in Superior Court; two in District Court; nine in Family Court; and three in the Traffic Tribunal. While subject to annual amendment, these are the statutes governing the appointment of magistrates:
- Superior Court administrator-magistrate: § 8-2-11.1
- Superior Court general magistrate: § 8-2-39
- Superior Court special magistrate: § 8-2-39.1
- Superior Court drug court magistrate: § 8-2-39.2
- District Court administrator/clerk-magistrate: § 8-8-8.12
- District Court clerk-magistrate: §§ 8-8-16.1 & 8-8-16.2
- Family Court magistrates: § 8-10-3.1
- Family Court general magistrate: § 8-10-3.2
- Traffic Tribunal chief magistrate & magistrates: § 8-8-2.1
In 2007, the General Assembly enacted statutes which standardize the appointment of magistrates as follows:
- All magistrates will be appointed by the chief or presiding judge of their courts with the exception of Traffic Tribunal, which has a newly created chief magistrate. Appointments of Tribunal magistrates will be made by the Supreme Court chief justice.
- All magistrates will serve 10-year terms.
- All magistrate appointments will require Senate confirmation.
- Magistrates may be reappointed for successive 10-year terms subject to Senate approval.
The flaws in this appointment system are obvious. Two require comment:
- The public has no knowledge of or participation in the appointment of magistrates until an appointment is scheduled for a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee. There is no mandated advertisement of a vacancy, no process of screening applications, no public hearing on semi-finalists’ qualifications as is the case with the screening of judicial candidates by JNC.
- Placing the appointment – and the reappointment – of magistrates in their superiors’ hands will ensure the magistrates’ total dependency upon those superiors unlike the situation of judges, who serve for life once confirmed. The appointment of magistrates has become, in short, a patronage system.