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R.I. Ethics Commission overrides staff, lets high-ranking senator pursue Supreme Court seat

Panels rejects draft opinion that “revolving door” rule bars Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman from seeking high court appointment

Senator Erin Lynch Prata during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the State House in June 2019. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)
Senator Erin Lynch Prata during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing at the State House in June 2019. (Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff)Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Ethics Commission on Tuesday voted to override the legal advice of its staff and clear the way for a high-ranking state senator to pursue a state Supreme Court seat.

In a written draft opinion, the staff said the “revolving door” provision of the state ethics code prohibits Senator Erin Lynch Prata, a Wawick Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, from seeking a position on the state’s high court for a full year after she leaves office.

But the commission voted 5-2 to reject the staff’s advice, opening the door for Lynch Prata, who has said she won’t seek reelection, to apply for the Supreme Court seat that Justice Gilbert V. Indeglia plans to vacate at the end of June.

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Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John M. Marion said the watchdog group is “sickened” by the Ethics Commission’s decision.

“The commissioners ignored the plain meaning of the law and turned their back on both legal precedent, and a 30-year fight to end backroom deals and establish an independent judiciary for our state,” Marion said. “Until the playing field is truly level, Rhode Island will never get the government and judiciary it deserves — one that is truly reflective of our great and diverse state.”

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairwoman Sue Cienki blasted the decision, saying, “The majority of the Ethics Commission should be embarrassed.”

“By opening the revolving door for legislators to go directly to the Supreme Court, a majority on the Ethics Commission voted to go back to the corrupt judicial selection politics that existed a generation ago when two consecutive chief justices, who were former legislators, resigned in disgrace,” Cienki said.

Lynch Prata issued a statement, saying the Ethics Commission decision affirms what she believes the law clearly states -- that a Supreme Court position is a constitutional office that’s not subject to the revolving door prohibition.

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“I thank the commission for the time they spent and the diligence in reviewing my request,” Lynch Prata said. “I submitted my application prior to the April 30 deadline and look forward to going through the extensive process.”

The process of picking a new Supreme Court justice begins with an application to the Judicial Nominating Commission, which will select three to five finalists to submit to Governor Gina M. Raimondo. The governor will pick a nominee, who must then be approved by both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

In the draft opinion, Ethics Commission staff said “revolving door” provisions were meant to address the “widespread belief that there was, at least, an appearance of impropriety in the elevation of elected officials to paid, lifetime appointments to the judiciary.”

And that’s especially true in this case, the staff said, because Lynch Prata’s appointment to the Supreme Court would require the consent of the Senate Judiciary Committee that she now heads.

But Lynch Prata had cited an exception that allows elected officials to seek other “constitutional offices," and her lawyers argued that those included both the state general offices, such as governor and treasurer, plus the five seats on the Supreme Court.

The Ethics Commission staff contended that the exception only applies to constitutional offices that are filled by election, and Supreme Court justices are not elected — they’re appointed.

But Herbert F. DeSimone Jr., the Ethics Commission’s legal counsel, disagreed with the Ethics Commission staff, saying he believes the exception to the “revolving door” rule would allow Lynch Prata to seek a Supreme Court seat because it’s a “constitutional court,” as opposed to a lower court.

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He said lawmakers could have explicitly stated that the exception applies only to the general offices, but it’s applies to all “constitutional offices.”

The staff argued that the Ethics Commission didn’t have to decide whether the Supreme Court is a constitutional court because the statute’s language clearly applied only to offices filled by election.

But Lynch’s Prata’s lawyer, Frank Flanagan, said the key question is whether the Supreme Court is a constitutional court, and to ignore that question, he suggested, would be a form of the “Wizard of Oz defense” that says “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

The commission’s chairwoman, Marissa A. Quinn, and commissioner Dr. Timothy P. Murphy voted to accept the staff’s draft advisory opinion. But Vice Chair Arianne Corrente and commissioners Kyle P. Palumbo, M. Therese Antone, J. Douglas Bennett, and Emily B. Vaziri voted to reject it.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.