June 29, 2009

Breaking: RI Supreme Court Undercuts Ethics Commission

Marc Comtois

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has managed to take away one of the RI Ethics Commission's big sticks:

The Rhode Island Supreme Court has upheld a lower-court ruling on behalf of former Senate President William V. Irons, saying that state legislators cannot be prosecuted by the state Ethics Commission for their votes or official legislative actions.

The vote was 3-1, with retired chief justice Frank Williams joining Francis Flaherty and William Robinson. Paul Suttell, recently confirmed by the Rhode Island Senate as the next chief justice, dissented.

Full opinion here. At issue was how to reconcile two sections in the RI Constitution; the "speech and debate" clause--that "enables representatives to execute the core legislative functions of their office without fear of civil or criminal prosecution and ensures the separation of powers among the coordinate branches of government"--and the amendment that created the Ethics Commission. As soon-to-be Supreme Court Chief Justice Suttell writes (in dissent):
I agree with the majority that the ethics amendment and the speech in debate clause are two conflicting constitutional provisions. If both are accorded their broadest readings, neither can flourish to their fullest extents....Harmonization, however, is not possible in this case; I share the majority’s view that the two provisions “stand in diametrical opposition to each other.” Accordingly, these provisions being irreconcilably repugnant, one provision must necessarily bend to the other. The majority resolves this conundrum by declining “to abridge such a long standing and widely accepted constitutional provision in the absence of an express and uncontroverted manifestation of electoral intent.” By doing so, however, it perforce vitiates the applicability of the ethics amendment to legislators with respect to their performance of legislative activities, contrary to the plain and unambiguous language of the ethics amendment. In essence, the majority chooses to accord greater import to “an ancient and venerable hallmark of our form of government” than to the more newly minted ethics amendment.


I would hold that in matters concerning the ethical conduct of legislators the ethics amendment creates a narrow exception to the immunity historically adhering to legislators in the performance of their legislative activities. Such a construction of our constitution, I believe, gives greater effect to the intent of the convention delegates and electorate in 1986 than an interpretation that places legislators beyond the reach of the ethics commission for violations of the code of ethics with respect to their performance of legislative activities. It would also preserve the full measure of protections accorded legislators by the speech in debate clause as to questioning from any person or entity except the ethics commission.

The majority has essentially made it impossible for any Ethics Commission investigation to be able to show a quid pro quo (ie; getting a "favor" for a favorable vote). Instead, back to business as it used to be done. Great.

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Disband 'em. It's official now. RI is for sale.

Posted by: Patrick at June 29, 2009 4:50 PM

Rhode Island has been for sale for a long time. This just codifies the practice.

It's hardly unexpected. When one has low expectations of public officials, one is rarely if ever disappointed by what they do -- or don't.

Posted by: Will at June 29, 2009 5:00 PM

One suspects that the old Depression era song "we're in the money, and skies are sunny" is reverberating around Smith Hill this evening.

Posted by: Tom W at June 29, 2009 8:26 PM

This will result in even more corruption. How scary is that?

Posted by: Damien Baldino at June 29, 2009 8:51 PM

One imagines that the old Depression era tune "we're in the money" is reverberating around Smith Hill this evening.

Posted by: Tom W at June 29, 2009 9:09 PM

Yeah, if I was, say, a relo firm analyzing RI, or a CEO considering moving part of my business there, this would send a message alright, loud and clear.

RI is corrupt to the core, and fundamentally irredeemable. If you are in on the game stay. If not, leave. And by all means, if you don't live there now, don't ever make that mistake.

Posted by: John at June 30, 2009 12:07 AM
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