The General Assembly unanimously approved legislation to restore the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over lawmakers. The joint resolution puts a constitutional amendment before voters at the November general election that, if approved, would close the legislative immunity loophole. Since it is a joint resolution, it does not require a signature by the governor to become effective.
In 2009, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that the state constitution’s “speech in debate clause” conferred legislative immunity upon General Assembly members. As a result, legislators stood outside the purview of the Ethics Commission. A constitutional amendment is necessary to restore the Ethics Commission’s oversight of the legislature.
“Since the Irons decision, Common Cause has dedicated itself to closing the ‘legislative immunity’ loophole,” said Common Cause Executive Director John Marion. “This is a historic moment for those who care about ethical government in Rhode Island. We have no doubt that this measure will increase transparency and accountability in our legislature. The work is not done, however, because voters still need to pass this constitutional amendment on the ballot in November.”
“Today’s vote is a dramatic, historic step forward,” said Phil West, who is the former executive director of Common Cause Rhode Island. “The Speaker and Senate President’s ballot question will allow voters to establish the same ethics accountability for all public officials in Rhode Island. It will again allow legislators to think through potential conflicts of interest and to seek advisory opinions from the Rhode Island Ethics Commission. No other state has anything better than this.”
The resolution adopted by the House and Senate did not include a campaign blackout period for filing complaints.
“We met with several groups and decided that the Constitution was an inappropriate place for a moratorium on filing complaints,” said Speaker Nicholas Mattiello. “I have confidence that the Ethics Commission will consider and determine the proper approach for dealing with frivolous, politically charged complaints.”
Personal note: It was an honor to sit in the House and Senate galleys with John Marion and Phil West as the resolutions passed.