RI Supreme Court Tackles Legislative Immunity

One of the biggest controversies brewing before the Rhode Island Supreme Court involves Section 5 of Article VI of Rhode Island’s Constitution:

Section 5. Immunities of general assembly members. — The persons of all members of the general assembly shall be exempt from arrest and their estates from attachment in any civil action, during the session of the general assembly, and two days before the commencement and two days after the termination thereof, and all process served contrary hereto shall be void. For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place.

Does this clause prevent the RI Ethics Commission from prosecuting members of the General Assembly under the Ethics Code for any actions they take as legislators?  More specifically, is the RI Ethics Commission prevented from prosecuting former Senate Majority Leader Bill Irons for his actions while a State Senator?

Superior Court Associate Justice Francis Darigan answered this question in the affirmative in this October decision. The RI Ethics Commission has appealed that ruling and the RI Supreme Court will hear oral arguments on May 13, 2009.

Several organizations are weighing in on either side of this issue. The Rhode Island Affiliate of the American Civil Liberties Union has asked to be a friend of the court in support of Irons.  Common Cause Rhode Island together with the League of Women Voters of Rhode Island, and Operation Clean Government (OCG), are seeking to weigh in on the commission’s behalf.

OCG has already filed its amicus brief through its attorney Tom Dickinson.  Click here to read it.  As more briefs come in, we will be posting them as well.

For those interested in background, here is some courtesy of the Providence Journal:

Irons, an insurance salesman, abruptly resigned on Dec. 31, 2003, after two decades in the state Senate. He had opposed pharmacy-choice legislation that CVS, which he had sold insurance to, wanted killed. The Journal disclosed that Irons, then chairman of the Senate committee that handled health care, had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in commissions since 1997 on a Blue Cross policy covering CVS workers in Rhode Island.

The Ethics Commission found probable cause that Irons broke the Code of Ethics after a complaint was launched by two members of the watchdog group, Operation Clean Government. The next step would typically have been a hearing before the commission. Irons, however, went to court in an attempt to block the commission prosecution.

In October, Superior Court Judge Francis J. Darigan dismissed ethics charges against Irons, finding that the “speech in debate” clause of the state Constitution prevented the Ethics Commission from questioning or investigating lawmakers based on their legislative acts.

All eyes will be on the Rhode Island Supreme Court on May 13th for the oral arguments!

Update: You can click here to read the Ethics Commission’s brief.  And click here to read the brief from Operation Clean Government.

Update #2: You can click here to read the RI ACLU brief.

Update #3: You can click here and here to read the briefs from Common Cause.

Update #4: You can click here to read the brief from Attorney General Patrick Lynch.

Update #5: You can click here to read the Ethics Commission’s reply brief.

Update #6: You can click here to read the Ethics Commission’s reply to the brief of AG Lynch.

Update #7: You can click here to read the Providence Journal’s preview of oral arguments.

Update #8: You can click here to read the 3-1 Supreme Court decision affirming the trial court’s ruling.  Newly confirmed Chief Justice Suttell penned a dissent.

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2 responses to “RI Supreme Court Tackles Legislative Immunity

  1. I am dying to know, as ethics won’t even give me guidelines until the Irons case is settled.

    (I am going to entirely recuse myself from any issue that my employer takes a stance on, but I’d like to have a formal guideline.)

    I hope that the ethics board is not gutted as a result of this…

  2. I agree. Ethics oversight is key – whether from an agency, a newspaper or a blog.

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