fb-pixel
COURTS

Latino elected leaders urge appointment of first Latina judge on Family Court

The state judiciary now has no Latino judges while Latinos account for 16 percent of Rhode Island and 43 percent of Providence

Central Falls Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth Ortiz
Central Falls Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth OrtizCourtesy of Judge Elizabeth Ortiz

PROVIDENCE — Twenty-two Latino elected leaders are urging the appointment of Central Falls Municipal Court Judge Elizabeth Ortiz to the Rhode Island Family Court, saying she would add much-needed diversity to a state judiciary that now has no Latino judges.

Attention has been focused on whether Superior Court Judge Melissa Long will become the first person of color ever appointed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

But supporters of Ortiz say it is also crucial to add diversity to other parts of the judiciary, and the Family Court is about to lose its only Black judge, Rossie Lee Harris Jr., who is retiring.

Advertisement



Latino leaders — including Secretary of State Nellie M. Gorbea, Providence Mayor Jorge O. Elorza, and Central Falls Mayor James A. Diossa — wrote an Aug. 17 letter to Judicial Nominating Commission Chairwoman Sarah T. Dowling, offering support for Ortiz.

“We believe that our judiciary ought to reflect the diversity of our great state and, in particular, the diversity of the population appearing before the Rhode Island Family Court,” the Latino leaders said.

The letter said the state judiciary now has no Latino judges and only one Latino magistrate — Alberto Aponte Cardona — while Latinos account for 16 percent of the state’s population, 43 percent of Providence’s population, and 66 percent of Central Falls’ population.

Ortiz is applying for a Family Court vacancy created by the retirement of Judge John E. McCann III. Family Court judges receive lifetime appointments with a base salary of $170,545.

The Judicial Nominating Commission plans to interview Ortiz for the Family Court vacancy on Oct. 28, along with Assistant Attorney General Jeanine McConaghy, Family Court Magistrate Andrea M. Iannazzi, Warwick lawyer Christopher E. Friel, Providence lawyer Shilpa Naik, and Providence lawyer Mary Eva Tudino.

Diony Garcia, interim president of the Rhode Island Hispanic Bar Association, said Ortiz would not only bring diversity and cultural understanding to the bench but also the necessary qualifications and experience needed to be a good Family Court judge.

Advertisement



“It would be a historic appointment, it would be a worthwhile appointment,” Garcia said. “It would be something that would improve the Family Court, in my opinion, and it would be significant to the community as a whole.”

Rafael Ovalles became the state judiciary’s first Latino judge in 2005 when former Governor Donald L. Carcieri appointed him to the District Court. But in 2017, the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline issued a 240-page report that found Ovalles had committed 41 violations of the Rhode Island Code of Judicial Conduct, and he decided to retire.

Garcia said the state judiciary has had no Latino judges besides Ovalles, although Cardona is a Family Court magistrate who can perform some of the duties of a judge.

On the municipal level, there are two Latino judges — Ortiz and Garcia, who is a Providence housing court judge. Before becoming mayor, Elorza served as a Providence housing court judge, as did his predecessor, Angel Taveras. Also, Roberto Gonzalez was a Providence housing court judge, and Cardona was a Central Falls municipal court judge.

Diossa appointed Ortiz as a Central Falls Municipal Court Judge in 2018, making her the first Latina municipal court judge in state history, and he is backing her application for the Family Court.

“The urban core has many families that go to Family Court, and it would be great to add another capable voice to the court that understands these communities,” Diossa said. “She would be a great addition to this court, which needs some diversity.”

Advertisement



Ortiz, 39, is a first-generation Colombian-American who grew up in Central Falls. She graduated from the Roger Williams University School of Law in 2010 and started a private law practice. She is a co-founder of the Rhode Island Hispanic Bar Association.

Ortiz has nearly a decade of experience representing clients before Family Court and now serves as a court-appointed guardian ad litem and a Family Court mediator. She has also served as an adjunct professor in the Legal Studies Department at the Community College of Rhode Island.

As Central Falls Municipal Court judge, Ortiz “faithfully and fairly carried out her duties, taking into consideration the diverse backgrounds and circumstances of the families in Central Falls,” the elected leaders said in their letter. “She modernized the court’s payment systems and implemented a system for the court’s first interpreters. We believe this experience clearly demonstrates her capability to serve as a Family Court judge.”

The letter was signed by other Latino elected leaders, including Providence City Council President Sabina Matos, Central Falls City Council President Maria Rivera, and Smithfield Town Council President Suzy Alba.


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