Scott MacKay Commentary: The Dearth Of Black Judges In Rhode Island

Feb 17, 2017

February is black history month, a time when we celebrate the contributions of African-Americans. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says that when it comes to the Rhode Island judiciary, there isn’t much to cheer.


Of the 85 judges and magistrates in the Rhode Island court system, just three are African-American. When it comes to the judiciary, says Jim Vincent, president of the NAACP, the “`judiciary is one of the most egregious, in terms of the lack of diversity.”

There are no black judges on the state Supreme Court. There are no blacks on the state’s Traffic Court or among the state’s judge-magistrates. There are no black women on the bench at any state court.

Here’s who we do have: Judge William Clifton sits on the District Court. Rossie Lee Harris is a Family Court Judge. And Walter Stone, who was one of the state’s most prominent trial lawyers before his appointment to Superior Court, is the lone African-American on Rhode Island’s top trial court.

William Clifton is now 73 years old. Stone is battling serious health issues and is no longer working full-time. Harris was sworn in just last August.

In just about every state, politics is at the core of judicial selection. Some states elect judges, others give governors outsized say in who gets to wear the black robes.

Rhode Island has a judicial nominating system that sifts those who apply for judgeships. Lawyers apply and then are vetted by the Judicial Nominating Commission. The commission interviews applicants and background checks are done. Then the commission forwards a list of names to the governor, who has the power to nominate judges. The ultimate say rests with the state Senate, which under the state’s Constitution, has the sole power to confirm judges.

That’s the textbook manner under which judges are chosen. In reality, everyone in the system knows that the Statehouse crowd is firmly in control. There is no hard and fast rule to becoming a judge. Nowhere is it written that the most qualified lawyer is chosen – it’s pretty much up to the Statehouse gang to sort things out.

So it’s not surprising that, say, when there are three judicial openings, the House speaker gets one choice, the governor another and the Senate president the third.

The political nature of the system tends to discourage applicants with scant juice on Smith Hill. Black lawyers often don’t apply, says Vincent of the NAACP, because they “`think the fix is in.”

Applying for a judgeship isn’t like applying to college or for most jobs. Lawyers in private practice have clients. When a lawyer seeks to become a judge, his or her name becomes public. Clients aren’t always pleased when they discover their lawyer wants to become a judge.

The law is less genteel  profession nowadays  and more a business, sometimes a cutthroat one. So lawyers who seek judgeships know that competing lawyers will try to poach their clients.

It wasn’t always this way. It used to be worse. A series of judicial scandals combined with the credit union crash in the 1990s led to the current judicial selection process. Years back, General Assembly leaders simply plucked one of their own from the House or Senate and put them on the bench. The Judicial Nominating Commission system has made the system more transparent, but a lawyer still needs some winks and nods from the Smith Hill crowd to successfully navigate the system.

Then there is the magistrate loophole. Magistrates are not subject to the judicial nominating system –they are still chosen by the purely political whim of Statehouse leaders.

But the system isn’t the only bar to more minority judges, says Edward Clifton, a retired African-American Superior Court judge. Not every black lawyer wants to be a judge. As is the case for top white lawyers, becoming a judge often entails a pay cut that younger lawyers with families don’t want to take.

The base pay for Family and Superior Court judges is $158,340 annually, $152,398 for the Worker’s Compensation Court and $148,460 for magistrates.

Still, the number of black judges is embarrassing in a state with a population of more than a million people. Vincent says there is some hope; a black woman lawyer, Melissa Long, has been cleared by the Judicial Nomination Commission. Her name has been sent to Gov. Gina Raimondo for consideration.

Rhode Island has had a black community since before the American Revolution. Lawyers from immigrant groups that have come to our state much more recently are better represented on the state bench. It’s past time for our political leadership to encourage qualified black lawyers to seek judgeships.

Politicians love to say that the strength of Rhode Island lies in its diversity. The question in black history month, and in every month,  is do they truly believe that?

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6;45 and 8:45 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org