Advisory Opinion No. 99-75

Re: The Honorable Joseph A. Montalbano

QUESTION PRESENTED

The petitioner, a legislator serving as a state senator, a state elected position, requests an advisory opinion as to whether he may participate and vote on legislation intended to revise the system for managing traffic violations in the State of Rhode Island given that the petitioner also serves as the Chief Judge of the Town of North Providence Municipal Court, a municipal appointed position, which administers traffic offenses.

RESPONSE

It is the opinion of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission that the petitioner, a state elected position, may not participate in or vote on legislation designed to revamp the system for managing traffic offenses because the legislation relates to and affects the petitioner as Chief Judge of the North Providence Municipal Court. Under the Code of Ethics, a public official may not participate in any official action when the official has an interest in substantial conflict with the discharge of his or her duties. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-5(a). A substantial conflict includes a potential financial gain or loss to the official, a family member, or business associate. R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Although the Code provides an exception where the official action would not affect the official to any greater extent than those within a significant and definable class of persons, R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(b), the Commission has refused to apply the exception a) where the official action would benefit only a small subset of individuals and b) where the legislative negotiation process has not yet clearly defined the definable classes potentially affected by the legislation.

The proposed legislation here addresses the Administrative Adjudication Court and the city and town municipal courts within the State of Rhode Island. The proposed legislation authorizes the Chief Judge of the District Court to petition the Supreme Court for a writ of prohibition against a non-complying municipal court. This action could bar municipal courts from hearing matters until further notice of the Supreme Court. To allow the petitioner to participate in or to vote on this legislation which directly affects the future of the municipal courts would enable him to affect how, if, or to what extent the municipal courts may lose their jurisdiction over traffic offenses. As such, this legislation clearly affects the petitioner’s financial interests and triggers R.I. Gen. Laws § 36-14-7(a). Further, the 7(b) exception does not apply because the petitioner is only part of a small subgroup of municipal court judges affected by the legislation. See A.O. 96-66 (the class exception will not apply to a subgroup of 100 businesses); A.O. 97-75 (the Code prohibits petitioner from participating or voting on a settlement agreement which would affect 85 employees of the Division of Parks and Recreation because they do not constitute a significant and definable class); A.O. 97-65 (concluding that the school committee member should not participate in negotiations or votes on a contract affecting a group of 45 teachers’ aides, 6 school staff, and 4 office support staff). Here, the legislation affects only the few municipal court judges appointed by the cities and towns (approximately 20). This subclass is not significant or broad based enough to fall within the 7(b) class exception.

In addition, the petitioner’s role as a legislator places him in a position to define the group impacted by the legislation and to determine the extent of the impact on the group. In the past, the Commission has determined that 7(b) does not apply in such circumstances. In A.O. 95-54 and A.O. 95-56, the Commission found that legislators, a retired teacher and a working teacher, could not participate in negotiations relating to the pension benefits for state workers and teachers except where the particular matter being discussed would in no way affect the legislators’ personal interests. In those cases, the Commission declined to apply the 7(b) exception “given that it is impossible to determine which groups will be significant and definable during the negotiations and given that the legislator, particularly a member of the leadership, may play a role in defining the groups to be effected by the pension legislation.” For the same reasons, the 7(b) class exception does not apply here.

Code Citations:

36-14-5(a)
36-14-7(a)
36-14-7(b)

Related Advisory Opinions:

97-75
97-65
96-66
95-54
95-56

Keywords:

Class Exception