RHODE ISLAND — The Rhode Island State Supreme Court ruled in early March that future advisory opinions on ethics, issued by the ethics committee to judges, must be published in unredacted form and supporting documents must be released.
The Providence Journal sought access to an advisory opinion and supporting document issued by the Rhode Island Advisory Committee on the Code of Judicial Conduct issued to former Superior Court Judge Antonio Almeida.
There is no written rule that the opinions are confidential although in practice the committee has accorded complete confidentiality to the entire advisory opinion process. The Journal argued that in the absence of an explicit rule requiring confidentiality, the committee’s opinions are public documents.
The Journal further argued that because Almeida was no longer with the court, he had no privacy or reputation interest in the opinion and it should be released under either under a common-law right to inspect and copy judicial documents or under the Access to Public Records Act.
The committee and the Rhode Island Trial Judges Association opposed the release of the opinion and supporting materials. The groups stated that it is crucial to the effectiveness of the committee that judges feel free to seek counsel and guidance without fear of disclosure. “It would have a chilling effect on judges’ use of the committee and will be a disservice to both the bench and the public it serves.”
The state Supreme Court held in early March that the public interest weighs in favor of disclosure based on common law access to judicial records. However, advisory opinions issued prior to the publication of its opinion should be released in redacted form so as not to disclose the identity of the requesting party or of other parties referred to in the document.
Justice Donald Shea dissented, finding that the majority ignored the privacy right of judges and that the public has no interest justifying the release of the supporting documents.
(In re Access to Certain Records of Rhode Island Advisory Committee on the Code of Judicial Conduct; Media Counsel: Joseph Cavanagh and Michael Dibiase, Providence)
The Reporters Committee regularly files friend-of-the-court briefs and its attorneys represent journalists and news organizations pro bono in court cases that involve First Amendment freedoms, the newsgathering rights of journalists and access to public information. Stay up-to-date on our work by signing up for our monthly newsletter and following us on Twitter or Instagram.