“We have had this conversation far too often, and for far too long,” said Representative Anastasia Williams. “While our state continues to grow year after year in diversity, our courts have remained stagnant in the past and void of the color that fills its corridors, its courtrooms and Rhode Island’s cities and towns. Yet our voices and our screams have continuously fallen on deaf ears and our calls for inclusion and equality are shrugged off as not important to the status quo. Enough is enough…
“With the movement for racial justice sweeping across this country at a pace not seen since 1960s, now is the time to finally give Rhode Island’s community of color the earned and well-deserved positions at all judicial tables,” continued Williams (Democrat, District 9, Providence). “Now is the time for the judiciary to represent all of our citizens equitably and fairly. Now is the time for Governor Raimondo to prove to us all that her words for equality and unity are backed up by her actions and the only way for the governor to do this is to appoint Melissa Long and Elizabeth Ortiz to the State Supreme Court and Family Court, as a part of her supposed commitment to the community of color.”
Melissa Long, when sworn in as a Superior Court Judge in 2017, a position she still holds today, became the only African-American woman on the Rhode Island bench.
Several Latinx elected officials have publicly declared their support to have Central Falls Municipal Judge Elizabeth Ortiz nominated to family court.
Representative Williams called out the chief judges on the various courts, demanding that they publicly call for more diversity on their respective benches. For instance, to Chief Justice Paul Suttell, Williams said, “You are a man of integrity and compassion and certainly [a] representation of fairness. I stand before you today, in the city of Providence, State of Rhode Island to ask you, Chief Suttell, to speak up, speak up on behalf of the community of color. It is your duty to represent and voice your concerns of the need of your courtroom.”
Williams ended her plea with these words:
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“If Rhode Island is to become a great state for racial equality and hope, it must rise up and see the truth of this injustice and change it once and for all. There is no clearer example. These days of systemic racism, than the judicial appointment process in Rhode Island, my friends. There is no clearer example and there’s no hiding from it. They’re doing it bluntly blatantly in our faces each and every day as recent vacancies has opened and highly qualified candidates of color have raised their hands to serve amidst the racial awakening of 2020s, the public not only demand, but expect that Melissa Long and Elizabeth Ortiz will be given these just and fair appointments.
“A… currently planned political appointment is unacceptable and intolerable and the harm to the community of color and its allies would be irreparable,” continued Williams, referring to rumored nomination of retiring State Senator Erin Lynch Prata (see below). “Now it’s up to our top state leaders to demonstrate what they truly believe and how they truly feel about racial equality here in their government. Will their words ring hollow or will their actions prove that they are truly on the side of justice and real change. Surely time will tell, but rest assured, mark our words, seal this date that we, the people of Rhode Island’s community of color are intently watching, taking notes, calling names, and our demands for equality once and for all equality, freedom, justice will not, will not be silenced, will not be silenced. I thank you for being here.”
“Prior to becoming an attorney, I could not tell you… the value and the effect and the impact that a judge has on cases in Rhode Island,” said Jose Batista, Executive Director of the Providence External Review Authority (PERA) and candidate for House District 12 in Providence. “Our court system is often inundated with many more court cases than can be reasonably handled at one time. During these crunch moments, when there’s a premium on resolving cases and hurrying them up, a judge’s intellect, experience, [and] cultural competence are of the utmost importance.”
These judges often make snap decisions that have lifelong consequences for individuals, children and communities said Batista. “Racial diversity is not just morally right. It is also in the vital economic interest of our state in the long term.”
Williams said that “it’s clear” that the status quo is still going on behind closed doors, and who will be nominated to the open State Supreme Court seat. The person Williams is referring to is retiring State Senator Erin Lynch Prata (Democrat, District 31, Warwick, Cranston) who has made her intention to be nominated to the Supreme Court well known. Lynch Prata sought and received an exception from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission to apply for the job before being out of public service for a year, as state law demands. Common Cause Rhode Island decried this decision, which was done against the advice of the Ethics Commission’s own lawyers.
“There’s a fix that’s on,” said Williams, noting that Governor Raimondo, who will decide the nominations, has repeatedly ignored her and the communities of color who want the next judges nominated in Rhode Island to be women of color.