Rep. Marcello calls for constitutional amendment to restore Ethics Commission powers over Assembly
STATE HOUSE – Rep. Michael J. Marcello (D-Dist. 41, Scituate, Cranston) has once again introduced legislation that will ask voters to decide – through a constitutional amendment – if the Ethics Commission should maintain jurisdiction over legislators’ votes and actions.
The bill (2015-H 5374) would put a question on the next general election ballot (2016) asking voters to decide if the Ethics Commission should be allowed an exception in the “speech in debate” clause of the Rhode Island Constitution that shields lawmakers from prosecution or civil suits based on their actions as legislators, such as proposing or voting on a bill.
If approved, the constitutional change would reverse a Supreme Court decision that acknowledged a conflict between the “speech in debate” clause and the section of the constitution that established the Ethics Commission. The Supreme Court, in that ruling, gave precedence to the former.
“When voters approved the constitutional amendment establishing the Ethics Commission more than two decades ago, the assumption was that ethical behavior would be expected of all elected officials, including members of the General Assembly, and that the Ethics Commission could prosecute unethical behavior,” said Representative Marcello. “While the court’s ruling may be right on point, constitutionally it was never anyone’s intent to grant the members of the legislature a free pass on ethical issues.”
The legislation he sponsored, said Representative Marcello, will allow voters to reaffirm that when they approved the Ethics Commission creation in 1986, they intended for that body to have jurisdiction over all public officials.
“The central issue is whether the Ethics Commission should have jurisdiction over legislators. I believe it should and I hope voters have a chance to offer their opinion. I think they will resoundingly say they want a strong Ethics Commission and a law that applies equally to all elected officials,” said Representative Marcello.
If approved by voters, the change would not repeal the “speech in debate” clause, which is intended to protect legislators from being harassed or stopped from doing their jobs as legislators as a result of frivolous lawsuits and complaints. It would, however, grant the Ethics Commission an exception in that clause so that the commission would have the power to prosecute ethics violations by legislators.
This Marcello bill – identical to one he introduced in 2014 and 2014 – has been referred to the House Committee on Judiciary. Among the dozens of co-sponsors are Rep. Joy Hearn (D-Dist. 66, Barrington, East Providence), Rep. Edith H. Ajello (D-Dist. 1, Providence), Rep. Arthur Handy (D-Dist. 18, Cranston) and Rep. Gregory J. Costantino (D-Dist. 44, Lincoln, Johnston, Smithfield).
For more information, contact:
Randall T. Szyba, Publicist
State House Room 20
Providence, RI 02903