PROVIDENCE — US District Court Judge William E. Smith’s shift to senior status will provide a “golden opportunity” to appoint a person of color to that federal court in Providence for the first time, observers said Wednesday.
Last week, Smith announced that he will become a “senior judge,” with a reduced caseload, as of Jan. 1, 2025. So that gives President Joe Biden 18 months to fill the seat with guidance from the state’s two Democratic senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse.
“I think it’s a golden opportunity to have diversity at the District Court level,” said Jim Vincent, a long-time Rhode Island civil rights leader and former president of the Providence branch of the NAACP.
In years past, public discussion has focused on the need to develop a “pipeline” of people of color who would be prepared to step in when such a vacancy arises, he said.
“But now we have that pipeline,” Vincent said. “We have multiple candidates who would be more than qualified to fill that position.”
Vincent said he has not talked to anyone about applying for the position, but he noted that several state judges of color have experience — including Justice Melissa A. Long, who became the first Black justice on the Rhode Island Supreme Court in 2021; Judge Christopher K. Smith, a former state District Court judge who was just sworn in as a state Superior Court judge; and Judge Melissa R. DuBose, who has been a state District Court judge since 2019.
While there has never been a person of color on the US District Court in Rhode Island, Rhode Island resident O. Rogeriee Thompson broke ground as the first Black woman to serve on the state District Court, on the state Superior Court, and on the Boston-based US First Circuit Court of Appeals, which handles appeals from Rhode Island. She is now a senior judge on the appellate court.
Roger Williams University School of Law Professor Michael J. Yelnosky, who has studied judicial selection, said that when the lack of diversity on the federal and state courts in Rhode Island has arisen in the past, defenders of the status quo have often said there weren’t enough qualified candidates of color in the “pipeline.”
“But we are now seeing the maturation of the Rhode Island bar and the bench, where there are some very well qualified candidates,” he said.
Yelnosky said he had no insights into who might apply for the US District Court seat, but he cited the judicial experience of Dubose, Smith, and Long. And he noted that Judge William J. Trezvant was sworn in last year as a state District Court judge, and that Kas R. DeCarvalho, a partner with Pannone Lopes Devereaux & O’Gara, has been a finalist for a state District Court judgeship.
“It’s important for the judiciary to be representative of the public it serves ― both in terms of the perception that the public has of whether they are being treated fairly, and the reality,” Yelnosky said. “It’s still the case that a Hispanic litigant or a Black litigant could be the only non-white person in the courtroom, and that’s true whether we are across the street in the state courthouse, or in federal court.”
The judiciary’s power depends largely on its reputation and the perception of fairness, he said.
“We know it’s the case that judges bring their experiences to the bench and that the act of judging is not an exclusively objective scientific sort of process,” he said. “Notwithstanding (Supreme Court Chief Justice) John Roberts’ continued insistence that all he does is call balls and strikes, that is not how it works.”
Yelnosky, former dean of the Roger Williams University School of Law, said the state’s only law school has been trying to help diversify the supply of qualified candidates for judicial positions such as this one. And both DuBose and Christopher Smith are graduates of RWU Law.
By announcing his decision now, Judge William Smith has provided enough time to nominate and confirm his successor, Yelnosky said. “They are going to have to hustle, but I have no doubt they will,” he said. “All bets are off if there is a change in administration or the control of the Senate.”