Attorney General Belatedly Enters the Irons Fray

pointing out that the RI Supreme Court
1.) has messed up
2.) by skipping past grounds to exonerate William Irons.

The attorney general argues the high court need not take up the constitutional question at all, that the Ethics Commission itself issued an advisory opinion that gave Irons the OK to cast legislative votes that might have a financial impact on his clients.
Lynch’s friend-of-the-court brief comes about two weeks before the high court is to hear arguments on May 13. It drew fire Friday from the Ethics Commission and other parties with a stake in the case, with all saying they would like the constitutional issue settled. They complained its late date did not give them a chance to respond as the deadline to file briefs is up.

The focus of the case, William Irons, then President of the Rhode Island Senate, resigned abruptly in early 2004 rather than disclose the names of clients for whom he may have abused his official power. Two of the state’s good government organizations Common Cause Rhode Island and Operation Clean Government, the latter having filed the ethics complaint that kicked off the case,

… remain perplexed. “We find it interesting that the defender of the state Constitution [the attorney general] is trying to get the court to punt on the constitutional issue,” said John Marion, executive directive of Common Cause. “It seems like he would be interested in getting the constitutional question answered.”
Chuck Barton, president of OCG, said it looked like Lynch, who is said to be in the Democratic race for governor, is playing it both ways: “It looks like he’s siding with the Ethics Commission but at the same time he seems to be finding a way to endorse Irons’ behavior.”

No, no, no, says the AG’s office.

Lynch’s spokesman Michael J. Healey says not so. “It’s not pro-Irons; it’s not anti-Irons,” he said. “It’s about trying to help the court settle an important issue.”

Even if the Attorney General is simply trying to be helpful, isn’t he erroneously trying to inject a legal irrelevancy into the case? Isn’t the court obliged to limit its focus to the basis of a ruling by the lower court, which concluded that

… past legislative acts performed by Irons are prohibited from inquiry by the Speech in Debate Clause. Consequently, the Ethics Commission is constitutionally precluded from questioning Irons about those acts.

Nowhere in that conclusion is there reference to the Ethics Commission Advisory Opinion that Patrick Lynch is now waving.
David Scharfenberg has a well-written article about Dem gubernatorial candidates in the April 22 Providence Phoenix. In it, the Attorney General indicated that

… he was eager to tout his record on heftier matters in building the case for a battle-tested leader with the energy to shake up Smith Hill and lead the state out of its morass.

During his tenure as the state’s chief law enforcement officer, the Attorney General passed up several opportunities, large and small, to “shake up Smith Hill”. On Friday, notoriously the news day which accrues the least press coverage and pubic attention, he appears to have stepped in to actually amplify the defense of a former member of Smith Hill leadership. Not so much shaking up, then, as trying to hold together.
Battle-tested, indeed. The question is, in whose army?

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David Potts
David Potts
13 years ago

Having read the ProJo article I agree that Patrick Lynch is off base here. Lynch is correct that the Supreme Court should base its ruling on the narrowest grounds available. It is a maxim of jurisprudence that judges should avoid making overbroad rulings. This principle is an essential component of judicial restraint. Judges decide controversies between parties. They shouldn’t set policy by establishing rules that are broader than necessary to resolve the case before them. However, in this case, as the Ethics Commission’s counsel has pointed out, the effect of the Commission’s advisory opinion is a matter of fact to be deteremined in the first instance by the Ethics Commission itself. Lynch is apparently attempting to short circuit the whole issue by urging an appellate court to make a finding of fact, a role properly left to trial courts and administrative tribunals. Since I can’t believe that the attorney general is ignorant of the scope of appellate review, I can only infer that he is throwing up a smoke screen in the hope that it will allow him to escape weighing in on the issue of whether or not legislators have a constitutional right to sell their votes.

Matt Jerzyk
Matt Jerzyk
13 years ago

For those interested in reading it themselves and making their own judgment, AG Patrick Lynch’s brief can be found here in the Updates section:

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