The past week has been challenging for my schedule. As I wrote last week, the Tiverton Board of Canvassers gave itself the power to block resolutions from the ballot because its members felt somebody might file a legal objection if the resolutions were to pass. Astonishingly, Newport Superior Court Judge Stephen Nugent today confirmed that a Town Solicitor’s unverified opinion is tantamount to an official ruling on the law, and that the Superior Court can’t “second guess” a Board of Canvassers for anything it does, at least for the purpose of a motion for a temporary restraining order.
In a prepared statement that seemed to take whole sentences from the solicitor’s memo, the judge did not address most of the arguments made by the other side, even where we, the plaintiffs, pointed out that the solicitor had written things that were simply wrong. Certain documents simply didn’t say what he had written that they said. Judge Nugent actually repeated some of the solicitor’s misstatements as if they were fact.
For years, I’ve repeated a truism that I had heard: If you want justice in Rhode Island, you have to get into federal court. To some extent, this may be less a statement against the courts as against the system in which they operate. A busy judge who has to make a quick, time-sensitive determination on a town’s unique legal process may have to rely on others to an extent that isn’t ultimately justified. It takes a bit of familiarity to see the injustice when a local Board of Canvassers is, it’s true, taking a town solicitor’s advice, and even more attention is necessary to judge the claim from the outside. When the plaintiffs are asking for a quick ruling on a restraining order, the safest path may be to rule against it and wait for the full hearing to do the more in-depth work.
A few weeks ago, I told some of my friends that — as corrupt and unlikely as they seemed — outcomes like this were bound to happen, and that it was OK. The insiders of the town want to impede the ability of voters to choose lower budgets, and they want ultimate authority over revenue from the Twin River casino. We should expect it, I suggested, and bring our case to voters. All of that analysis loses its power to comfort when you actually witness something like this happen. The relativism is shocking.
And it’s dangerous. Sometimes I’ll read a story of a last-ditch effort to salvage democracy in a country like Venezuela. The legislature will try some maneuver that, even from this distance, seems unlikely to work against the iron will of a dictator. Why do they bother? I’ve wondered. Read the writing on the wall, folks. It’s revolution, escape, or capitulation. I’m learning from experience that it’s just so hard to believe that people of authority will look at an apple and declare it a banana. Maybe if I just make my argument clearer and find even more evidence that it’s an apple, they’ll have to admit it.
But Rhode Island isn’t a banana dictatorship, yet, if only because the people in power lack the spine to turn violent. We still have our vote. In fact, that may be all we really have, and we have to use it. We have to confirm for people, first, that the apple is an apple, and (more difficult) we have to convince them that it’s worth going out and voting in order to assert that reality.
If we can’t have a process that values the truth, if we can’t have a common ground of logic for our political battlefield, all we have left truly is revolution, escape, or capitulation. We shouldn’t want that.