Several years ago, Rhode Island adopted a rigorous, innovative procedure to appoint its judges based on merit. This rigorous process is called the Judicial Nominating Process.
The Judicial Nominating Commission was established in 1994 in response to judicial scandal as a means to improve the selection process of judges. Its aim is to choose the best-qualified judges, based on the merits, to fill vacancies on the court bench.
However, the process does not extend to magistrates; that’s why I introduced legislation (2018-S 2611) that would require that magistrates go through the same rigorous, independent, and merit-based selection process as judges.
The Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) consists of a panel of citizens that advertises openings on the state courts, reviews applications, screens candidates, conducts interviews, and even accepts public testimony on candidates. Once the JNC has fully vetted applicants, it forwards a short list of 3-5 recommended candidates to the Governor, who picks one to send to the state Senate for advice and consent.
I think of magistrates as “junior judges.” Magistrates share many of the powers of judges. They can hear motions, rule on the admissibility of evidence, issue warrants, and impose sentences in some cases. But their nominations do not go through the comprehensive, transparent, independent public vetting process that judges must go through, namely the JNC.
Because magistrates are single-handedly nominated by the chief judge of the court where they hope to work, the public has few assurances that the best qualified candidate has been nominated.
Worse yet, many magistrates lend the appearance, sadly, of being the best connected nominee for position of magistrate. When this happens, it undermines confidence in the fairness of the selection process and, by logical extension, the fairness of our system of justice. That is a disservice to the public as well as the nominee himself or herself.
Chief judges should not be in a position to nominate magistrates. Consider that no governor nominates a lieutenant governor, no senator nominates another senator and no representative nominates another representative. Indeed, no judge should nominate another judge. And, when a judge does so, it can inject the appearance, if not reality, of politics into a Judicial Branch which must remain above the fray. For justice to be truly blind, it must be appear and be impartial.
In my opinion, separation of powers is required to maintain the independence, balance and integrity within each branch of our government. Therefore, the power to nominate individuals of power and consequence should not be vested in the very same branch in which its nominees will serve.
We need a consistent merit selection process for our magistrates as we do for our judges. Senate bill 2611 would require that magistrates be selected through the JNC helping to ensure that Rhode Island will appoint the best qualified, and perhaps diverse, nominees to be court magistrates. No process is perfect, but this bill, if enacted, would significantly raise the bar for members of the magistrate’s bench.
The author, James C. Sheehan, is a state senator representing District 36. He resides in North Kingstown.