Rep. Donna M. Walsh has submitted legislation to require merit selection and vetting by the Judicial Nominating Commission for magistrates in Rhode Island.
Magistrates are court officers that generally preside over uncontested cases, though their duties vary from court to court. Currently, most of the 20 magistrates in Rhode Island’s court system are appointed by the presiding judges of their court, with confirmation from the Senate.
Under Walsh’s bill (2013-H 5022), magistrates would be selected in the same manner as judges – the state Judicial Nominating Commission would submit to the governor a list of candidates it deems appropriate, from which the governor could choose a candidate to nominate on the basis of merit.
That candidate would then be subject to Senate confirmation. The names of all finalists would be made public, just like names of judge finalists selected by the Judicial Nominating Committee.
Representative Walsh said the legislation is necessary because magistrates’ responsibilities and powers are very similar to those of judges, so their appointments should be made with similar prudence and review.
“Magistrates’ decisions are legally binding just like judges’ orders are. They can send people to jail, grant or deny someone’s bail and hear motions just like judges. They have people’s fate in their hands just as much as judges do, and our citizens deserve assurance that they are selected fairly and on the basis of merit,” said Walsh, a Democrat who represents District 36 in Charlestown, New Shoreham, South Kingstown and Westerly.
“They also receive salaries and pensions that are similar to those of District Court judges. Rhode Island doesn’t appoint judges without any public hearings or discussion of their merits, so we shouldn’t choose our magistrates that way.”
According to Walsh, the move would reduce the politics involved with the appointment of magistrates, assure that magistrates are qualified for their work and strengthen the public’s confidence in the their ability to preside fairly over cases.
Walsh submitted similar legislation in 2002 when she was a senator, after leading a commission that studied the appointment of magistrates. That bill passed the Senate that year, and she has submitted the bill each year since winning election to the House of Representatives in 2006.
The legislation is backed by Common Cause, which has also been pushing for merit selection of magistrates.
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