Council members unanimously voted (8-0) Monday night approving an amendment to an ordinance concerning the appointment, term and qualifications of municipal court judges. The legislation will reduce …
Council members unanimously voted (8-0) Monday night approving an amendment to an ordinance concerning the appointment, term and qualifications of municipal court judges. The legislation will reduce the number of associate judges within the city from five to three and make sure individuals have at least 10 years of experience in the active practice of law (instead of two years) before being eligible for a municipal court judgeship.
Sponsored by Councilwomen Jessica Marino and Lammis Vargas, the legislation was introduced at the Nov. 17 City Council Ordinance Committee meeting. The two consulted Cranston’s Chief Judge Matthew Smith who, on Monday, said he and the court administrator – Elisabeth Bettis – agreed with the two changes. Smith believes this reduced number of judges can efficiently handle the municipal court workload.
The city’s municipal court is open four days every other week and, prior to the amendment, the city code stated that the institution would be composed of one chief judge, one senior associate judge, five associate judges and two auxiliary judges appointed by the city council; the judges would serve until a successor is duly appointed. According to the city code, compensation of the chief judge is $8,025 per year and the compensation of a senior associate judge and associate judges is $3,750 a year.
Cases are spread evenly between judges; Smith said while judges see roughly 30-35 cases in one session, and he estimates that the number could increase to 55-60 cases. Smith added that in the last five years, Cranston has had the second highest number of tickets adjudicated next to Providence.
At the Nov. 17 meeting, Councilwoman Nicole Renzulli inquired about the jump from two to 10 years of experience in the active practice of law before being eligible for a judgeship.
“In the State of Rhode Island for you to just be an arbitrator, which is a much lesser degree than a judge, you need a minimum of 10 years of practice as a lawyer in good standing,” said Marino. “So that’s why to have two years is insane.”
Marino, who’s a civil litigation defense attorney, added it’s important to keep in mind that there is not going to be a drought of potential candidates with the new qualification.
There are currently seven municipal judges serving, and all terms are set to expire during the first week of January. Judges are appointed to their position by the City Council for a two year period which begins when the City Council appoints its first judge. The terms run concurrent to the City Council terms, so all the judges’ terms will expire this winter; individuals will then be appointed the first Monday in January.
At the Nov. 17 meeting, attorney Stephen Angell spoke to the 10 year qualification – mentioning that there’s a certain amount of emotional intelligence that comes from experience. Angell said lower level courts receive some interesting cases where people are sometimes emotional or irrational and a judge has to use emotional intelligence to sort through that.
Assistant Solicitor John Verdecchia said the judicial selection process on the state level – in terms of Rhode Island Supreme Court, Superior Court and District Court – doesn’t have any such requirement which has been a subject of debate amongst lawyers for years.
“My position has always been that experience counts,” said Verdecchia.
Councilman Matthew Reilly – who’s an attorney – agreed that experience is important; he spoke of his first year in law to where he is now. He said a lot of folks in municipal court are representing themselves and don’t really know the law.
“I think this [ordinance] is a step in the right direction,” said Reilly.
This is not the first amendment to the ordinance on the appointment, term and qualifications of municipal court judges. Back in 2021, an amendment was made to expand the number of judgeships by adding one associate judge and one auxiliary judge to the existing bench to address the backlog of cases due to the pandemic. Prior to that passage, the court was composed of one chief judge, one senior associate judge, four associate judges and one auxiliary judge. On Monday, Smith said the backlog has been handled and municipal court is back to its average number of tickets per month.