My Turn: Sen. James C. Sheehan: Seeking judgeship, breaching ethics norms

By Sen. James C. Sheehan

Providence Journal Jun 13, 2020


Our state is beautiful, yet small. Our residents are bound by close ties of family and friendship. The downside to this familiarity is that these same ties provide fertile field for governmental favoritism, insider dealing and corruption.

This was the case back in the 1970s and 1980s when government officials, leveraging their powerful positions and political connections, helped themselves, family and allies to cushy state employment. The good government group Common Cause branded this unsavory and unfair practice as the “revolving door.”

A groundswell of public support led by the Right Now! Coalition demanded reform. A bevy of ethics laws and regulations were approved in 1991 and 1992. Among them was the establishment of a mandatory one-year waiting period for state elected officials before they could “seek or accept” permanent state jobs, including judgeships. This “cooling off” period all closed the revolving door.

However, the General Assembly insisted on exceptions. One notable exception, approved in 1992, reads: “Nothing contained herein shall prohibit a state elected official from seeking or being elected (emphasis) for any other constitutional office” (RIGL 36-14-5 (N)(03). At the time of its passage, this exception appeared benign since voter approval would make it impossible for “elected” officials to manipulate the outcome of an election for say governor or secretary of state.

Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Erin Prata Lynch recently announced that she would not seek re-election to the Senate. Instead, she is seeking an appointment to a vacancy on the Supreme Court. For this, she needed “granted” an exception to the one-year cooling off period contained in the revolving door laws.

She properly asked the state Ethics Commission whether her action would violate the revolving door laws and rules. Staff attorneys at the commission drafted a strong advisory opinion that by seeking or accepting this position without waiting a year she would violate revolving door prohibitions.

On June 2, her attorneys argued that she qualified for the aforementioned exception that allows elected officials to seek election to “any other constitutional office.” In a 5-to-2 vote, members of the Ethics Commission astoundingly rejected the legal opinion of its own in-house counsel. In effect, the Ethics Commission blew a gaping loophole in the revolving door prohibitions.

To be fair to Senator Lynch Prata, her qualities and qualifications for the Supreme Court are not in dispute here. However, the senator’s claim that she is excepted from the revolving door is. Specifically, she claims that since the RI Supreme Court is cited in the R.I. Constitution, that post must be considered a constitutional office. This would represent only one of two criteria that would qualify Senator Lynch Prata, an elected official, for an exception under RIGL 36-14-5 (N)(03). However, the second criterion, “being elected,” cannot be met since justices are no longer elected (emphasis). Since 1994, justices of the Supreme Court have been nominated by the Judicial Nominating Commission, appointed by the governor, and separately confirmed by the Senate and House of Representatives. Further, Senator Lynch Prata’s claim that she qualifies for the exception under the revolving door law does not appear to be supported by any known legislative intent, history or court opinion.

If the revolving door laws are allowed to be breached, coveted seats on the Supreme Court again will be targeted as objects of political horse-trading and backroom deals by Smith Hill insiders. For all of those wishing to someday serve on the Supreme Court, advantage surely will go to the well-connected as opposed to those most deserving of the honor. Inevitably, this will undermine the respect for, and credibility of the Supreme Court itself. Given the significant reach and impact of the high court’s decisions on our basic liberties and general social order, this prospect should make every Rhode Islander shudder!

Sen. James C. Sheehan, a Democrat, represents District 36 (North Kingstown, Narragansett) in the Rhode Island Senate.