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R.I. Supreme Court ousts Chariho school committee member, orders replacement

The high court’s majority rules in a dispute between state law and the town charter, concluding that Democrat Jessica Marie Purcell should replace Republican Clay Johnson on the regional school committee

Licht Judicial Complex, state courthouse in Providence, Rhode Island.Edward Fitzpatrick

PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Supreme Court on Tuesday ousted a Republican from the Chariho regional school committee and replaced him with the Democrat who received the next highest vote total in last year’s election.

The high court ruling hinged on narrow interpretations of state law and a rural town’s home rule charter, but the dispute was part of a wider ideological battle over public education.

The legal battle began after Gary Liguori, a Richmond Democrat, stepped down from the school committee for the regional school district that includes the rural towns of Charlestown, Richmond, and Hopkinton.

The Richmond Town Council voted to replace him with Republican Clay Johnson, chair of the conservative Gaspee Project and a supporter of Parents United, which opposes “efforts to teach our K-12 students any divisive race-based or gender-based theory and any inappropriate and explicit sexual content.” His appointment left the 12-member school committee split evenly between conservatives and liberals.

But a lawyer for Democrat Jessica Marie Purcell filed a petition with the state Supreme Court, arguing that the Town Council illegally appointed Johnson, and asking the high court to replace him with Purcell, who received the next-highest number of votes in November’s school committee election.

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The legal arguments centered on the Chariho Act — a 1958 state law that calls for town councils to select candidates to fill vacancies on the regional school committee — and the Richmond Home Rule Charter, which calls for the Richmond Town Council to fill vacancies by appointing the school committee candidate with the next-highest number of votes in the last election.

Supreme Court Justice Erin Lynch Prata wrote the court’s majority decision, saying, “Purcell’s petition is granted, and she is legally entitled to the office of Chariho Regional School Committee member. A judgment of ouster from the office of school committee member in the Chariho Regional School District shall be entered against Johnson.”

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Lynch Prata said the court follows the rule that when faced with “competing statutory provisions that cannot be harmonized, we adhere to the principle that the specific governs the general.” And she said Richmond’s Home Rule Charter is specific in its procedure for filling vacancies.

“The charter is clearly more specific,” Lynch Prata wrote. “For these reasons, the charter controls.”

The court’s goal is to give effect to the General’s Assembly’s intent in passing a statute, she said.

“We presume that the Legislature knew that the Chariho Act included a general vacancy provision for the School Committee when it approved the charter that included a more specific vacancy-filling provision for the School Committee,” Prata wrote. “It is clear that it was the will of the voters in the town to have procedures in place to fill a vacancy on the School Committee with an individual who had shown some effort and desire to be on the School Committee by running for the seat.”

But Supreme Court Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg dissented from the court majority’s opinion.

“The Richmond Town Charter strips the town council of its discretion, by election of a majority vote of the town council, to fill a vacancy on the Chariho Regional School Committee, a separate body politic statutorily created by the General Assembly,” she wrote. “Because (the charter) mandates the appointment of an unelected candidate from the last election, it is in conflict with the General Assembly’s exclusive jurisdiction over elections and education and it does not supersede the Chariho Act.”

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McKenna Goldberg argued that the Richmond Home Rule Charter provision was not expressly ratified by the General Assembly, as required.

The specific charter section must be expressly validated and textually apparent,” she wrote. “A generalized, catch-all provision by the General Assembly does not carry the day in this constitutional realm, in my opinion, and there is no law to the contrary.”

McKenna Goldberg also disagreed with the conclusion that the provision in the Richmond Town Charter is the more specific enactment.

Jeff Levy, the attorney representing Purcell, said he was pleased by the Supreme Court’s decision. “I think they reached the right decision,” he said.

Joseph S. Larisa Jr., the attorney representing Johnson, said, “Former Chief Justice Weisberger used to remind parties on the losing side that ‘Supreme Court opinions are not final because they are right. They are right because they are final.’ Although the court agreed with the town and against Purcell 5-0 that the charter and the Chariho Act were inconsistent, the majority nonetheless ruled in an 18-page opinion that the charter provision mandating the appointment of Purcell prevailed over state law.”

“We believe that the 38-page dissent by Justice Goldberg detailing how the Richmond Town Council acted well within its rights in appointing Johnson was the better opinion,” Larisa said. “The majority, however, disagreed, and its view is final.”

The Richmond Town Council has scheduled a meeting for 9:30 a.m. Friday, and the agenda includes the “appointment of Jessica Purcell to fill a vacant seat on the Chariho Regional School Committee pursuant to a decision issued by the R.I. Supreme Court on July 18, 2023, subject to issuance of a judgment to oust Clay Johnson from office.”

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