December 16, 2005

An Issue for Voter Initiative: Merit Selection of Magistrates

Carroll Andrew Morse

Anchor Rising is soliciting examples of reforms that explain how a voter initiative alternative for passing laws could be used to improve the state of Rhode Island. The example that follows was suggested by Operation Clean Government.

The law discussed below was proposed in last year’s legislative session, but killed in committee, without a vote. Consider if this is law that you believe Rhode Island should have. Then ask yourself if it is reasonable to believe that the legislature will vote on it this year, or if it is more likely that they will quietly kill it again -- if they think they can get away with it.

You may have heard in Rhode Island that we have both “judges” and “magistrates”. What is the difference, you ask? Rod Driver, from Operation Clean Government explains…

In 1994, after a series of scandals in the judiciary, Rhode Island voters amended the state constitution to establish merit selection of judges. However, since then relatives of politicians have been appointed to positions with the powers and responsibilities of judges. But instead of calling them judges, they are called "magistrates" and hence not covered by the merit-selection requirement.
In last year’s legislative session, the Rhode Island Senate passed bill S1051, which would have closed the judges-versus-magistrates loophole and instituted merit-based procedures for selecting magistrates, similar to the procedures used for selecting judges. The reform bill died, however, in the House Judiciary committee, without being voted on.

The argument against voter initiative is that elected legislators, out of a sense of noblesse oblige, protect citizens from special interests – special interests that will be left unchecked if voter initiative is passed. So here is the question to voter initiative opponents: What special interests was the House fending off when it rejected merit selection of magistrates?

And here’s a question specifically to incoming House Judiciary Chairman Donald Lally (a voter initiative opponent): Will you bring merit-selection-of-magistrates up for a vote if it is re-introduced in the House Judiciary Committee this year?

Finally, here’s a trick question. What are the positions of the other members of the House Judiciary Committee on merit selection of magistrates? If a majority are in favor, then it’s obvious that RI needs voter initiative because legislative procedures concentrate too much power in the hands of a small group of leaders able to thwart not just action on, but basic deliberation of issues. But if a majority oppose the merit selection of magistrates, it is equally as obvious that RI needs voter initiative to bypass a government establishment more interested in rewarding friends than in facilitating good government.