Rhode Island Courts Could Soon Have Only One Minority Judge

Thursday, December 08, 2016
GoLocalProv News Team and Kate Nagle

Could Rhode Island — a state whose population is more than 25% minority — soon have just one judge of color on the state’s roster of 85 judges and magistrates?

With only four minority judges and no minority magistrates, minorities currently make up less than 5% of the Rhode Island State Judicial Roster.

Currently, Superior Court Associate Justice Walter Stone is on medical leave; District Court Associate Judge William Clifton could be nearing retirement, and District Court Judge Rafael Ovalles is presently the subject of a judicial complaint from both a clerk and attorney that is under review.  

While the future of those three is uncertain, the fourth minority judge, Rossie Harris, Jr. was recently named to Family Court as Associate Justice after serving as a magistrate. 

“We have a problem,” said Jim Vincent, President of the NAACP Providence Branch.  “I’m fairly certain that if you compared the composition of the judicial roster to the diversity of our state, that we would rank among the worst, if not the worst in the country.”

“Massachusetts has had two Supreme Court Chief Justices of color. Minnesota has had a Supreme Court Chief Justice of color. Meanwhile Rhode Island had never had a person of color on the Supreme Court, period,” said Vincent. “Right now the confidence in our courts is in question. No persons of color on the Traffic Tribunal-- or Workers’ Compensation. Three whole courts devoid of anyone of color, in the history of Rhode Island.”

Addressing the Situation

“I think you start off with the recognition that the justice system ought to reflect the people subjected to it,” said Roger Williams University Professor of Law David Logan, who served as the Dean of RWU Law from 2003 to 2014. “We talk about that a lot with police, and I know that [Rhode Island Attorney General Peter] Kilmartin is aware of the lack of diversity among prosecutors, but the other slice of that problem is the people that execute the judicial power .”

“I think to be fair there's a pipeline issue -- the reality is the percentage of minority lawyers is fairly small, and mid-career — who would be candidates for judicial appointments —  is always small,” said Logan. “We're doing the best we can to diversify the bench and bar. It’s only in the last five to six years we've had a substantial number of minority candidates.”

“Governor Raimondo convened a group last spring to talk about this. I’m not aware if anything moved forward on that front - but there was discussions about having more diverse candidates apply and be successful,” said Logan.  “Unfortunately, the Governor hasn't had many judicial appointments, and hasn't made it a focal point of her administration, but hopefully she can take some leadership on the issue.”

Ray Rickman
Former State Representative and Deputy Secretary of State Ray Rickman spoke to the situation with GoLocal on Wednesday. 

“There are a hundred talented black and Latino lawyers out there who could be judges. In the old days you got on courts by being a state representative, and  it was hard to get to be one, because you couldn't be in the General Assembly unless you came from a certain family. It was a historically white, legislative affair,” said Rickman.  “Now we have a new system but the old rules are essentially still in place. Three people get to make the decision, and there's always a law partner who wants the position.  They really need to say the court needs to be more diverse, and the political people will be selected last — and high quality, and people of color, should be considered first.”

“These Democrats — why do they think people are mad? The Democratic party calls for diversity, it's part of our reason for existence,” said Rickman. “This governor needs to take charge and put a person of color on the bench. There will be four to five vacancies by next June or July, and those should all be people of color.  How radical would it be to appoint four to give people of color in a row?  We've appointed four to five white people all the time up until now. It’s not radical at all.”

Rickman, who until recently served on the State Parole Board, spoke to what he saw from minority prisoners. 

“Those folks feel they've been treated unfairly, so they have no respect for law. Everything they see in front of them is white,” said Rickman. “And even when the judge is being fair, they’ll decide its unfair because a white person did it.”

Court Potential

Both Rickman and Vincent spoke to a black, female candidate for Superior Court that they are urging Governor Raimondo to appoint. 

“Melissa Long -- she's the Chief of Staff for Nellie Gorbea,  she was an attorney at the Department of Transportation,” said Vincent. “The NAACP endorsed Melissa. This was about six weeks ago — I sent a letter of support.”

“We’ve only had one female African American on any court, and that was Rogeriee Thompson,” said Vincent. “There is no woman of color in any of the courts currently.”

“Judge Wiley in 1982 was the first black judge in Rhode Island. The first black judge in Michigan was in the 1840s. We’re a hundred years late,” said Rickman. “We’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Anytime anyone is discriminated against, it should be fixed. I've been a feminist all my life because they're so absent in so many places. We're moving forward -but not as fast as we should.”

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