PROVIDENCE — Governor Gina M. Raimondo’s new slate of judicial appointments could make Rhode Island history.
Raimondo announced Tuesday that she is nominating two women to the state Supreme Court: state Senator Erin Lynch Prata, and Associate Justice of the Rhode Island Superior Court Melissa A. Long, who also would be the first Black state Supreme Court justice. If both are confirmed, it would make women a majority on the state’s highest court for the first time.
“As Governor, one of my most important and sacred responsibilities is to appoint high-caliber judges who reflect the diversity of the Rhode Islanders they serve,” Raimondo said in a statement. “I am confident that each of these nominees will fairly and honorably uphold the laws and values of our state.”
Other trailblazing women of Rhode Island law were thrilled.
“I’m always delighted with the appointment of qualified women,” said Superior Court Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney, who was appointed to the bench in 1984 and is now the longest-serving female jurist.
“It’s about time! I’m absolutely delighted,” said former Rhode Island Attorney General Arlene Violet, who was the first woman elected as attorney general in the United States 35 years ago.
“The court should reflect the population it serves. People bring different experience to the bench, and their background has a lot to do with it,” Violet added. “I’m absolutely thrilled to hear this news, and I think it serves the cause of justice. We will have better rulings because it will take into [account] the lived experiences when they make a decision.”
Superior Court Judge Netti C. Vogel, appointed in 1994, recalled how few women were lawyers when she began her career in the 1970s. It wasn’t until 1979 that Rhode Island had the first woman, Judge Florence Murray, appointed to the state Supreme Court. And, for the last 18 years, there has been only one woman out of the five Supreme Court justices.
Times, she said, are finally changing.
“Female judges, whether Superior, Supreme, District, or Family Court, help to erode the enduring old boy network. Back in the day it did result in patriarchal and sexist attitudes that continued to protect male interests,” Vogel said Tuesday. “It really is a happy day for those of us women who clawed our way to be considered equals in the Bar. Things have really, really changed, and I think with these appointments we are finally getting some equality on the bench. This is the first time in the history of Rhode Island when women will not be a minority on the bench. This is gender equity.”
Also Tuesday, Raimondo nominated Elizabeth Ortiz, a first-generation Colombian-American who currently serves as a municipal court judge in Central Falls, to be a judge on the Family Court — the first Latina to be nominated for the position. She nominated lawyer Linda Rekas Sloan, assistant vice president and counsel at Fidelity National Title Group, as the first Asian-American woman to serve on the state Superior Court. Raimondo nominated Superior Court magistrate Richard D. Raspallo to serve as a judge on the Superior Court, and workers’ compensation lawyer Kevin Reall to serve on the Rhode Island Workers’ Compensation Court.
The names of those who were nominated have been submitted to the state Senate, and the Supreme Court nominees were also submitted to the House, for advice and consent.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell welcomed the appointments, saying that the governor’s nominees “are truly historic and reflect her continuing commitment to diversifying the Judiciary.”
John M. Marion, executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island, said, “It’s an important day, because the judiciary will be far more reflective of the state when these people are confirmed.” He also pointed out that magistrates such as Raspallo are not subject to the merit-selection process that voters approved for picking judges, and that the state Ethics Commission in June overrode the legal advice of its staff, which concluded that the “revolving door” provision of the state ethics code prohibited Lynch Prata from seeking a position on the state’s high court for a full year after she leaves office. Lynch Prata had requested the advisory opinion after deciding not to run for reelection this fall to her seat representing Warwick, where she has been a senator for 12 years.
As chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lynch Prata had played a pivotal role in enacting the bill, signed into law by Raimondo last year, that preserves abortion rights in Rhode Island in case the US Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade. She began her two decades in the law by clerking for Justice McKenna Goldberg, who would become her colleague if her nomination to the Supreme Court is confirmed.
Long, who was appointed by Raimondo to the Superior Court in 2017, said it would be “the honor of a lifetime” to serve on the state’s highest court. Appointments to the Supreme Court are for life.
“As the great, great-granddaughter of slaves and the daughter of two U.S. Army Veterans who married six months prior to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia, I am acutely aware of the impact that our judiciary can have on the everyday lives of our citizens,” Long, a former deputy secretary of state, said in a statement Tuesday. “If confirmed, I commit to serving with honor and integrity and to bringing all my energies and accumulated wisdom to the sacred task of rendering decisions that shape our society and our lives. Like so many of my heroes who have come before me, I aspire to understand and respect the stories of those that appear in our courts, and to appreciating that their stories matter – to them, to their families, and to others who are similarly situated.”
Amanda Milkovits can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMilkovits. Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.