PROVIDENCE — House Republicans on Thursday called for Democratic Governor Gina M. Raimondo to put a person of color on the panel that screens state judicial candidates, saying it’s a crucial step in creating a more diverse bench.
The action comes as the Judicial Nominating Commission is poised to interview candidates for vacancies on the Rhode Island Supreme Court, Superior Court, and Family Court. Attention is focusing on whether the state will place a person of color on its high court for the first time, and Latino leaders are pushing for the appointment of the first Latina judge on the Family Court.
House Minority Leader Blake A. Filippi, a Block Island Republican, said the House GOP caucus gave Raimondo a list of three diverse, qualified candidates for the Judicial Nominating Commission on July 6, but she took no action. And he said Republicans submitted another list with three other candidates on Aug. 31, but she again took no action.
So on Thursday, Filippi and other Republicans lawmakers held a news conference outside the Licht Judicial Complex in Providence, saying that Raimondo’s failure to make the appointment does a disservice to communities of color demanding a more diverse judiciary.
“It appears they can’t even get a diversified Judicial Nominating Commission,” he said. “I think it’s doing great harm. Not only is it unlawful, it is immoral.”
Raimondo’s press secretary, Audrey Lucas, said, “There is no statutory timeline for this appointment.”
She said Filippi has submitted three different lists of candidates, with the most recent list coming in on Aug. 31, and she said, “The Governor plans to make this appointment in the near future.”
Filippi said Raimondo is relying on a “tortured legal argument” that violates the spirit of the law that created the Judicial Nominating Commission in 1994.
After a series of scandals, voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1994 that created a merit-selection process for choosing state judges. The Judicial Nominating Commission was set up to vet candidates and submit lists of finalists to the governor. And the 1994 law required the governor to appoint commission members “within 14 days after June 2, 1994.”
Filippi said the 14-day deadline applies to all commission appointments – not just the initial round back in 1994.
“To the extent that there is vagueness, the governor’s interpretation violates the spirit of the law, and that interpretation is wrong,” he said. “The governor is playing games with the JNC, and that is exactly what the voters sought to prohibit when they amended the state constitution in 1994.”
The Judicial Nominating Commission chairwoman, Sarah T. “Sally” Dowling, said the commission does include a person of color – Mary J. Archibald.
Lucas said Raimondo appointed a Black lawyer, Leonard Lopes, to the commission in July, but that appointment had to be withdrawn because the statute requires that seat to be filled by a member of the public who is not a member of the bar.
Filippi said Republicans are trying to add diversity to the commission by finding a replacement for former state Representative Scott Rabideau, a Burrillville Republican whose term on the commission expired in 2015.
He said Republicans have given the governor lists of qualified, diverse candidates such as the Equity Institute’s Carlon Howard, Block Island assistant town manager Shirlyne Gobern, Lincoln insurance agent Bruce Messier, and David de la Cruz, husband of state Senator Jessica de la Cruz, a North Smithfield Republican.
“We have provided her a broad cross-section of minority community representation,” Filippi said. “But the governor has refused to act on those nominations, and frankly, with the pending judicial appointments, her failure to follow the Judicial Nominating Commission statute calls into the question the pending processes for these judges.”
Republicans said they have heard the calls for diversifying the judiciary from other legislators and from “all corners of Rhode Island.”
“While we most certainly have a top-notch judiciary, we cannot deny the experience of minority communities that rarely encounter judges that look like them, and that this may undermine their faith in our judicial system,” Filippi said. “It is with this understanding that House Republicans have embarked upon our appointment to the JNC.”