“I’m very proud to be appointing one of the most diverse sets of judges, I think, really, ever, that any governor has been able to appoint at one time,” said Governor Gina Raimondo on December 10, announcing her appointments, pending State Senate confirmation, of six new judges to various courts in Rhode Island.
Though Senate confirmation of Raimondo’s nominees seem very likely, two State Senators have expressed doubts and disappointment in some of Raimondo’s choices.
“Definitely, having more judges of color is a step in the right direction,” said State Senator Ana Quezada (Democrat, District 2, Providence). “I’m so happy for the nominees, and that half of them are people of color, because the courts should better reflect the population of people who come before them. But at the same time, there is not a single Latino or Latina among them. We should be represented on the bench, and it’s disappointing that it just isn’t happening right now.”
State Senator-Elect Sam Bell (Democrat, District 5, Providence) agrees with Quezada, saying, “Senator Quezada is absolutely right to decry the lack of a single Latino on any of our state courts. I stand with her. I have heard from several constituents who believe that the Latino community deserves representation in our judicial system.”
Like Quezada, Bell was not entirely critically. “I am thrilled with the experience that Christopher Knox Smith brings to the bench as a public defender,” said Bell. “We need more judges who have committed their lives to public service, who approach the judiciary from a life of advocating for those in need, advocating for those who suffer from the challenges of poverty and of systemic racism. I hope that the Governor and Judicial Nominating Commission will continue to look to our public defenders in their future judicial selections. Similarly, I am excited to see the perspective that Melissa DuBose will bring to the bench from her years of public service as a social studies teacher in our Providence Public Schools.”
“The appointment of Melissa Darigan, however, raises far more serious concerns,” Bell said. “Filling a seat previously held by Judge Walter Stone, a deeply respected jurist who was the sole person of color on the Superior Court bench until the recent appointment of Judge Melissa Long, with a white nominee raises serious concerns.
“Furthermore,” continued Bell, “I am deeply concerned with elements of Darigan’s background, and I worry about the perspective she will bring to the court. Unlike the District Court nominees, whose lives have demonstrated a passion for public service and social justice, Darigan’s background is as a corporate lawyer, representing banks, insurance companies, and other corporate interests. We need more judges who will be skeptical of corporate power and be willing to rule on behalf of workers, the environment, and consumers.”
“I am also concerned about Darigan’s decision to donate the maximum $1000 to Governor Raimondo’s campaign one week after she was announced as a candidate for the position by the Judicial Nominating Commission,” said Bell. “While I do not believe that this donation influenced Governor Raimondo or violated ethics laws, I believe that judges should strive to maintain the highest possible standard of ethics principles and avoid any appearance of impropriety.”
[In view of full transparency, Bell disclosed that he received a campaign contribution of $1000 from the father of Olin Thompson III, one of the judicial candidates who was not selected.]
The state still has three open judgeships to fill.
Quezada urged the Judicial Nominating Commission and Governor Raimondo, in the strongest terms possible, to ensure that Latinos are included in the next set of nominees. Bell pointed out that Darigan was selected from an all-white nomination pool, and Raimondo had no Latino nominees to select from that pool. “Where we need leadership from our Governor and legal community is in ensuring a strong pool of qualified Latino applicants,” said Bell.
Bell did praise Raimondo for her selections of well-qualified judges of color for the two open seats on the District Court. One seat had previously been held by distinguished African-American jurist William Clifton, who passed away earlier this year. The other seat had been held by Judge Rafael Ovalles, who recently resigned, leaving Rhode Island’s state courts without a single Latino judge.
Raimondo nominated Melissa Darigan to the Superior Court, Christopher Knox Smith and Melissa DuBose to the District Court, Richard Merola to Family Court, and Keith Cardoza Jr and Susan Pepin Fay to Workers’ Compensation Court. Of the six seats they would fill, two were vacated by black judges and one was vacated by a Latino judge.
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