PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) – RI Supreme Court Judge Francis Flaherty with a key victory in his years-long fight against an ethics complaint, the state’s high court may soon find itself in the unusual position to hear a case involving one of his own.
RI Superior Court Judge Brian Stern on Friday overturned an RI Ethics Commission ruling from last year citing Flaherty for violating the state’s code of ethics. The violation, which was accompanied by a $ 200 fine, stemmed from a 2016 complaint accusing Flaherty of repeatedly failing to disclose his leadership position in a Catholic non-profit organization while ruling on a case of sexual abuse of a priest.
Stern, however, overturned that decision, concluding in part that the commission had failed to prove that Flaherty had committed a violation “knowingly and willfully”, meaning that commission lawyers have not shown that Flaherty had intentionally withheld l ‘information.
“The Commission’s decision did not lead to conclusions which [Flaherty’s] the actions were deliberate, ”Stern wrote in his ruling.
Flaherty, who appealed the commission’s decision to Superior Court last year, said through a spokesperson: “The decision speaks for itself.
Lawyer and Executive Director of the Ethics Commission, Jason Garmitt, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The committee must now decide to appeal Stern’s decision, and its members have scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to consider the matter. If appealed, the case would go to the Supreme Court – of which Flaherty is a member – which would have to agree to hear it.
And while Flaherty is most likely to recuse himself, the idea of his colleagues speaking out on a case involving one of their own could open the court to criticism, according to former Supreme Court Justice Robert Flanders Jr.
“Such a case always opens the court to criticism, but it comes with the job,” said Flanders, who served from 1996 to 2004. “It is inevitable that these cases will be criticized, but as in most situations, if you just do your job and do it the right way, you will survive criticism.
The situation would be unusual, but not unprecedented. In 2005, the Supreme Court overturned a Superior Court decision and dismissed a complaint against former Chief Justice Frank Williams. The complainant at the time argued that Williams did in fact quit his post as Chief Justice when he accepted another post on the US Department of Defense Military Review Board.
Williams was not involved in the proceedings and has since retired.
With the Flaherty affair, however, it is possible that he is not the only one missing in the process. The five-member tribunal currently has a vacancy as Associate Judge Gilbert Indeglia retired earlier this year. And while heads of state scrutinize candidates for the much sought-after nomination, the Flaherty case could be brought before just three judges, including Chief Justice Paul Suttell and Associate Justices Maureen McKenna Goldberg and William Robinson.
“Three judges are enough,” said RI courts spokesman Craig Berke, who also noted that the court can recall former judges to sit in certain cases, if necessary.
Regardless of what happens next, the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the ethics violation was a disappointment for Helen McGonigle Hyde, a lawyer and one of the plaintiffs in the sexual abuse case who alleged a rape at the hands of Reverend Brendan Smyth, who served in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence as a priest over 40 years ago.
Flaherty wrote a unanimous Supreme Court decision against the lawsuit, which was dismissed in part because the charges exceeded the statute of limitations. Flaherty was then president of the St. Thomas Moore Society.
Hyde, who now lives in Colorado, filed an ethics complaint against Flaherty in 2016 for failing to list his position with the Catholic nonprofit association in the financial documents he is required to file with the Ethics Commission.
“He can’t credibly claim that this was an innocent mistake,” Hyde told Target 12. “He should have known it was something he should have disclosed, especially when ‘he was sitting on church business. “