Family Court Magistrates Evade Merit Selection Process

Yesterday, Governor Dan McKee allowed to become law without his signature a bill that gives magistrates in the Rhode Island Family Court the statutory authority to conduct trials in contested divorce cases (H 7271 and S 2226). Common Cause Rhode Island had urged Governor McKee to veto the legislation. 

In 1994, Common Cause Rhode Island was one of many organizations that successfully pushed for a constitutional amendment that requires all Rhode Island judges be appointed using a “merit selection” process. That constitutional amendment created a Judicial Nominating Commission that interviews and takes testimony on applicants for judicial vacancies and then publicly votes to send a list of three to five candidates to the governor for them to choose from. 

After passage of the 1994 constitutional amendment, the General Assembly dramatically expanded the ranks of judicial magistrates who are not subject to the “merit selection” process, but are chosen using a variety of more opaque processes. More than 20 magistrates in the various courts have wielded limited judicial powers that did not include the ability to conduct trials.

“We are disappointed that Family Court magistrates now have the power to conduct trials,” said John Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “This subverts the will of the voters who spoke loudly and clearly three decades ago when they insisted that judges be selected using the transparent merit selection process. If Family Court magistrates are going to conduct trials like judges, they should be chosen using the same transparent process.”

In 2025, Common Cause Rhode Island will introduce legislation that will require that judicial magistrates be selected using the merit selection process.