For RI lawmakers, end of session looms with votes on thorny issues

Katherine Gregg
Providence Journal

PROVIDENCE − On the next-to-last day of this year's legislative session, Rhode Island's part-time lawmakers voted on some of the thorniest and most controversial bills of the year.

While some reflected hard-won compromises, one prompted an immediate call for a veto.

Case in point: A bill to retroactively allow magistrates − who were not chosen for their robes through the publicly screened merit-selection process that Rhode Island voters demanded in 1994 − to decide contested divorce cases.

Moments after the House on Wednesday approved the legislation on – and sent it along to Gov. Dan McKee to be signed into law – John Marion, executive director of the citizens' advocacy group Common Cause, issued this statement:

"Magistrates should not be conducting trials so long as they are not selected in the same manner as judges ... This end run around our Constitution must be stopped. Governor McKee should defend our state Constitution, and honor the will of the voters, by vetoing these bills."

As the bill requested by the chief judge of the Family Court made its way through the Senate on Wednesday, its way to final approval in the House, Sen. Samuel Zurier, a Yale Law School graduate, gave his colleagues a history lesson on the scandals in the R.I. court system that led voters in 1994 to reform the way bona fide judges are selected.

On its face, Zurier told colleagues, approving the bill allowing "magistrates" – who are not publicly vetted, recommended by a judicial screening panel or nominated by the governor − to preside over contested divorces is

 currently has Under state law, magistrates are selected by the chief judge of the court. They sit for 10-year terms that can be renewed, with confirmation by the state Senate.

Controversial picks for magistrates in years past: Their ranks over the years have included the wife of a House speaker, the sister of the Senate president's one-time chief of staff who is also the daughter of a former high-ranking labor leader, other top-level State House staffers and the wife of current state Rep. Alex Finkelman.

Past efforts to ban or at least limit their proliferation have failed.

Where the bill allowing magistrates to hear contested divorces began

"The voters – and I was one of them − overwhelmingly approved ... merit selection so that people who served as judges would be publicly vetted before assuming that position," Zurier said.

"So if you asked this voter whether a family court magistrate who is actually trying contested divorce cases was acting as a judge, I would say yes," Zurier said, noting that despite acting as a judge, they are not subject to the judicial nominating procedures set forth in the Rhode Island Constitution.

The short history: The legislation was submitted at Chief Family Court Judge Michael Forte's request on Jan. 24, the very day the state Supreme Court  in which it declined to take up a legal challenge questioning Magistrate Daniel V. Ballirano's authority to decide a contested divorce case because the lawyer who raised the issue did not bring it up earlier. 

Sen. Sam Bell asked if there was any court ruling to support what the legislature was about to do retroactively, and Senate Judiciary Chairwoman Dawn Euer acknowledged there was not.

The bill, sponsored by Senate President Dominick Ruggerio, sailed through the Senate nonetheless could lead an aggrieved party in a contested divorce to appeal to the Supreme Court, arguing "I don't think my case was tried by a legitimate judge because that judge didn't meet the constitutional requirements. That's something that concerns me."

There was no debate in the House, which passed its own version of the proposal earlier.

What other important issues were up for votes Wednesday?

Other bills won final votes on their way to the governor's desk, including one to expand the kind of expenses that qualify for Rhode Island's motion-picture tax credit. The backdrop:

While movie stars were filming scenes for "Ella McKay" in a starstruck State House this spring, Hollywood moguls moved to maximize the Rhode Island tax credits they can claim when they shoot in the state.

The Assembly gave final passage Wednesday to a bill that would make the cost of lawyers, accountants and film composers on Rhode Island films eligible for tax credits even if those workers are not based in Rhode Island. The state Division of Taxation objected to the bill in May, but it was unclear Wednesday whether those concerns had been alleviated by amendments to the bill.

What else has cleared the House and Senate?

There were also final votes sending bills to McKee that would:

  • Create the option of a public retirement account for any Rhode Island worker whose employer does not offer a retirement savings plan.
  • Allow the owners of miniature Japanese "Kei trucks" to renew registrations that were in effect before June 1.
  • Make hospitals and health care facilities publish a list of standard charges for different services.

What has cleared the House and needs Senate approval?

Other bills that received next-to-last-day House approval on their way to the Senate reflect compromises, including legislation to:

  • Require dental insurance companies to file reports showing the ratio between the premiums they collect and the claims they pay. The Rhode Island Dental Association mounted an aggressive campaign for legislation requiring insurers spend at least 85% on "patient care." The legislation does not go that far.
  • With the law that was supposed to give Rhode Island the highest minimum staffing levels in the country , the coalition responsible for getting it passed tried a different approach: pushing to establish a workforce-standards board that would set minimum labor and pay standards for nursing homes. The legislation headed for final votes – H7773 and S2621 – does not go that far.

With reports from Staff Writer Patrick Anderson