RWU Law Panel Reflects on the Judicial Selection Process in Rhode Island

Congratulations to RWU School of Law and Professor Michael Yelnosky for having a great forum on the process by which judges are selected in Rhode Island:

The percentage of state judges who earned degrees from Suffolk University Law School has grown since the state overhauled its judicial-selection process to be based on qualifications, not political connections, 15 years ago. The percentage of lawmakers heading to the bench dropped during the same period.

Likewise, the percentage of judges to attend elite law schools fell, while the percentage of native Rhode Islanders donning judicial robes grew.

Those were some of the facts that emerged Friday at a forum on Judicial Selection in Rhode Island: Assessing the 15-year Experience with Merit Selection at the Roger Williams University School of Law. The figures were presented by Michael J. Yelnosky, the RWU law professor who led the session.

Opinions were many, but one consensus was clear: It’s impossible to remove politics from the process altogether, despite the best efforts.

But, he said, the system will only work if its players — commission members, legislators and the governor — are committed to excising politics.

This reflection on the state of judicial selection in Rhode Island comes 15 years after the the process was reformed in 1994 – creating the 9-member Judicial Nominating Commission – after scandals forced the resignations of Supreme Court Chief Justices Bevilacqua and Fay.

Rhode Island is now 1 of 32 other states that employs some form of a merit-based system, 1 of 9 other states to publicly interview applicants and only 1 of 5 other states whose nominating committee publicly votes, according to this Providence Journal article.

Yet, politics still pervades in the judicial selection process in Rhode Island since the Governor ultimately nominates a candidate and the Senate must approve lower court appointments and both the House and the Senate must approve Supreme Court appointments.

There is a perception, said panelist Alan S. Flink, a former JNC member, “if you don’t have a political sponsor don’t bother to apply. …

For its faults, Rhode Island’s process is still much better than those states employing judicial elections, where politics and money play a much larger and more dangerous role (as Caperton v. AT Massey Coal showed).

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