Constitutional Authority

Unlike most other state agencies the Rhode Island Ethics Commission was not created by legislative act, but by the will and actions of the People of the State of Rhode Island who voted by ballot measure to establish the Ethics Commission in 1986 through an amendment to the Rhode Island Constitution.  Thirty years later, in 2016, Rhode Island's citizens overwhelmingly voted to approve a further amendment the Constitution to clarify that the members of Rhode Island's General Assembly are expressly subject to the Code of Ethics and the enforcement authority of the Ethics Commission. 

These Ethics Amendments vest the Ethics Commission with the authority to adopt a Code of Ethics pertaining to, among other things, conflicts of interest, confidential information, use of position, contracts with government agencies and financial disclosure. The Rhode Island Supreme Court has recognized the Ethics Commission’s constitutional authority to adopt and enact the Code of Ethics, and has held that the General Assembly also has authority to adopt provisions of the Code of Ethics that are not inconsistent with those adopted by the Ethics Commission. In re Advisory Opinion to the Governor (Ethics Commission), 612 A.2d 1, 16 (R.I. 1992).

The relevant sections of the Ethics Amendments to the Rhode Island Constitution are reproduced below:

Article III, Section 7 – Ethical conduct

The people of the State of Rhode Island believe that public officials and employees must adhere to the highest standards of ethical conduct, respect the public trust and the rights of all persons, be open, accountable and responsive, avoid the appearance of impropriety and not use their position for private gain or advantage. Such persons shall hold their positions during good behavior.

Article III, Section 8 – Ethics commission – Code of ethics

The general assembly shall establish an independent non-partisan ethics commission which shall adopt a code of ethics including, but not limited to, provisions on conflicts of interest, confidential information, use of position, contracts with government agencies and financial disclosure. The assent of two-thirds (2/3) of the members appointed shall be required for the adoption for every rule or regulation. All elected and appointed officials and employees of state and local government, of boards, commissions and agencies shall be subject to the code of ethics. The ethics commission shall have the authority to investigate alleged violations of the code of ethics, including acts otherwise protected by Article VI, Section 5, and to impose penalties, as provided by law. Any sanction issued against any party by the ethics commission shall be appealable to the judicial branch as provided by law. The commission shall have the power to remove from office officials who are not otherwise subject to impeachment, or expulsion as provided by Article VI, Section 7.

Article VI, Section 5 – Immunities of general assembly members

* * * For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place, except by the ethics commission as set forth in Article III, Section 8.