[Sidebar] March 15 - 22, 2001

[Features]

Courting confidence

Frank J. Williams, the new chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, faces the challenge of modernizing the state's courts and raising their public image

by Ian Donnis

Frank J. Williams

The dynamic of the courtroom has long captured the interest of Americans, albeit mostly in a string of fictional or sensational settings, from Perry Mason and Law & Order to the O.J. Simpson trial. When it comes to day-to-day proceedings, a lack of exposure means that most people have little understanding of how courts actually work. And although judges are meant to be models of probity and rectitude, the record in Rhode Island sometimes reads more like the plot for a television melodrama. Joseph A. Bevilacqua and Thomas Fay, two former chief justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, for example, resigned amid respective impeachment proceedings in 1986 and 1993, and a full accounting has yet to be offered for a more recent scandal involving the state traffic court.

At the same time, it's difficult to ignore the impact of race and class in the court system. Last year, a Brown University survey found that 64 percent of whites felt the court process is fair, compared to 41 percent of non-whites. And a national US Justice Department study indicated that black and Hispanic youths are treated far more harshly than white teenagers for comparable crimes in every step of the juvenile justice system.

Frank J. Williams, who succeeded Joseph R. Weisberger last month as chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, is well aware of the need to raise public confidence in the state's courts, although he questions the impact of socioeconomic factors in how people are treated. As chief justice, Williams serves on the Supreme Court, oversees all of the state's courts, and he knows there are a variety of other challenges, such as making the court process more user-friendly, modernizing technology and outdated court buildings, and moving the bureaucracy forward within the constraints of a $60 million budget. Williams, a 60-year-old Cranston native whose grandparents emigrated to the area from Italy, hastens to call the need for such changes "no-brainers" that represent nothing less than the survival of the court system.

Williams, an Abraham Lincoln scholar who lives in Richmond, topped four other finalists to become chief justice -- a situation largely attributed to his GOP ties -- and he characterizes himself as a moderate Republican in the Chafee mode. A graduate of Boston University and Boston University Law School, Williams served five years in the Army and worked as a lawyer in private practice, lobbyist, and town solicitor before being appointed as a Superior Court judge in 1995.

Williams spoke with the Phoenix last week in his seventh-floor office at the Licht Judicial Complex on Benefit Street in Providence.

Q: You've cited raising public confidence in the courts and making them more accessible among your chief objectives. How do you plan to go about doing this?

A: It's a multi-stage process. One is attempting to explain through outreach, schools, community groups, minority communities, what the judicial process is all about. It's very scary when you read a survey from the Constitution Foundation in Philadelphia that indicates that 60 percent of our young people, middle school kids and above, can't identify the three branches of government. That's scary. So I don't know what happened to civics in the curriculum that you and I may have had when we were growing up, even though you're much younger than I am. So that's one. Two is, of course, the way we treat people when they come here. I think we do all right. I think the clerks are friendly, helpful. I think the judges, on the most part, have the temperament to deal with litigants, lawyers, staff, the public, in a civil way and instructive way. The third thing is not be afraid to speak with members of the media, whether you're a judge or not, because I strongly believe that the media, whether it's print or electronic, is a major avenue to making the public understand the judicial process.

Of course, you've got other things that indirectly affect this issue that you've raised. New courthouses -- like Kent County Courthouse, right now, is an abomination, and people who come there as the last or first refuge are going to be turned off just by the very environment. So if you create a more user-friendly, effective, efficient environment you're assisting in the mission that we're talking about. The capability of filing electronically for lawyers, cutting down on the paperwork, making the public understand about what is required to participate in the process -- all go toward this issue.

Q: What do you tell people who wonder why Rhode Island's courts have been tarnished, for example, by the disarray at the traffic court and the problems that led to the consecutive resignation of two of your predecessors as chief justice?

A: You say that there have been problems and efforts were made to correct the problems. Taking your last statement first, which is absolutely correct, and sad, and tragic, they changed the process in which judges are selected now, because of that. Now you go through this fairly open process, the Judicial Nominating Commission. That's how I got to the Superior Court and also to become the chief, with input from lay people as well as lawyers, the screening that the governor does with his staff, and, of course, the confirmation proceedings in the Senate, and House and Senate if it has to do with a Supreme Court appointment. That's going a long way to remove, as much as you can remove in a democracy, politics. There'll always be a certain degree of politics in a democracy. Democracy cannot succeed without there being politics. When you and I speak one-on-one, it's a form of political intercourse.

The traffic court is another conundrum. I'm not sure I would have recommended the legislation that created the traffic tribunal. I'm not sure that it couldn't have been fixed in its then mode by straightening out the leadership issues, by better facilities, by better accountability from the staff and judges, by improving the software and technology, rather than creating this whole new unit that we have right now. But having done it, I inherit it. I've got to see how it's working. I know they're current on cases. They've got lots of checks and balances, and controls. We've still have work to do, I think, on computers or technology, but it's going to require constant attention on all of our parts.

Q: Your predecessor as chief justice declined to make public data bases that could shed light on what happened to $36 million in unpaid or accounted-for fines to the traffic court. Will you make this information available?

A: I'm looking at it right now, but I understand my initial query, Ian, is that we don't even have jurisdiction over those electronic tapes -- that they're now as part of the Registry of Motor Vehicles, one. Two, there was an audit, if not forensic, there was an audit that looked into whether or not this amount was accurate or close to accurate, whether it was uncollectible, and so on. And thirdly, there's a statute that says these tapes are sold to insurance companies for state revenue, three to six million a year, I'm told. And it seems to me that if the public, through the media, wants access to them, they ought to go to the General Assembly and have the statute changed. Do I personally care if you have access to them, or the public? Not at all.

But we've got some obstacles here. One is jurisdiction. And two is the General Assembly that has created this revenue-enhanced device to sell the tapes. Now, whether something can be worked out with my urging, even if I don't have jurisdiction, like, OK, this year's tapes has to be sold to insurance companies and, of course, you know what they're doing with that -- they're looking at your traffic record and mine to see if they're going to increase our premiums, right?

If we're bound by the statute and revenue-enhancing device or jurisdiction with the Registry of Motor Vehicles, what's wrong with at least giving to you, or anyone who requests them, and whatever the minimal cost is under the access to public records act, last year's tapes? If all you're concerned with is, trying to determine, if you can, from these tapes an accounting of the $36 million, it's not that relevant to you, is it, that you have the 2001 tape, which is current, or the 2000 tapes of a year ago, because all of this alleged activity, or unaccountability, or whatever you want to call this phenomenon, some happened years before 2000. So that's my take on it. But bottom line is, I'm looking to see, checking on the statute on the Registry of Motor Vehicles, on what can be done, because it seems to be a reoccurring issue. It's not going away, and I think I have to deal with it one way or another.

Q: Your grandfather changed his Italian surname from . . . .

A: Guglielmo. It was G-U-G-L-I-E-L-M-O.

Q: What led him to do this, and has this concern about the impact of discrimination or bias influenced your outlook as a judge?

A: Good question. In the '30s he was having trouble getting work in Newport. This was Depression, and Newport and was really the only place with some money. He was a landscaper, too, and in order to improve his chances for getting the work, he went to Probate Court and had the name changed or translated, because Williams in Italian is Guglielmo. And I kind of still feel bad for my dad and my uncle, because they went to school one day with the name Guglielmo and the next day it was Williams, which had to be a bit embarrassing, I think, for them. This is an early story that I knew almost from the cradle and I think it's had an influence on me -- one, to study Lincoln, for example. The sense of fair play, the sense of avoiding bias and discrimination wherever you could, not just as a judge, but long before, as a young person. I felt that way in the scouting movement, I felt that way in college. Certainly, in my almost five years in the military and ever since as a lawyer.

Q: What do you think the lasting impact will be of the Supreme Court's involvement in the conclusion of the presidential election?

A: Not much. I think the decisions of the Florida Supreme Court forced the US Supreme Court to act. De Tocqueville said in the 1830s that every major political question in America, because of our system of government, could or will wind up in the judiciary, and I think this is a classic example. I also think that most people realize that the courts don't want to deal with political questions. We would just as soon defer to the political processes, the executive and legislative branches. But the beauty or the challenge of the federalist system, which is the checks and balances of three branches, leads to what we saw in Florida -- that, ultimately, where a decision can not be settled through the normal political processes, it will wind up in the highest appellate court, which in this case was the Supreme Court of both Florida and the United States.

As much as one can disagree with what Florida did, or what Washington did, I think people have got to respect the underlying premise, that that is what the court is for. And like anything else, you've got to count the votes. Who's got the votes? And it's the same in the judiciary as it is in the legislative branch when it comes down to doing the best you can and coming with a majority decision. It wasn't that close initially on the equal protection question -- it was seven to two. Then, of course, as to what to do after that it became a lot closer, what we've come to expect -- the five to four majority of the court.

Q: There's a sharp division in how whites and blacks view the quality of justice, and more generally the criminal justice system in America. There was the recent Brown study that reinforced that finding. I know that there's a panel in Rhode Island looking at this question, but what do you plan to do about the perceived disparity in the kind of justice that people receive?

A: The bottom line to that, and we do have a committee for women and minorities, which has just finished completing a survey, I think what the answers [are] going to be, regardless of whether anyone wants to believe it or not, is what our dockets show -- if they show anything as to whether or not there's a disparity in sentencing. Is that what you're talking about? Sentencing blacks versus whites?

Q: Well, generally speaking, I think racial minorities have less confidence in the judicial system than whites do. It's a national phenomenon, not just one in Rhode Island. But there's a lot more skepticism, perhaps cynicism, on the part of racial minorities about whether people will be treated fairly.

A: What else can we do but continue to treat them the same way we treat white people or any other majority? This perception, which I think is absolutely incorrect, can only be changed by an underlying change in cultural beliefs. I think it's a phenomenon of the cultural wars that we're undergoing right now without the shooting -- a civil war without the shooting. I'm not so sure about the shooting. And I think it's a problem that's bigger than the courts -- it's a cultural problem. But I think all we can do is keep doing our job of making sure that it's a level playing field for every litigant or criminal defendant that comes into the process.

Q: How would you respond to the view that there's a strong correlation between a person's economic standing and the quality of legal representation that they receive?

A: Well, I don't know how much of that's true. Clearly, if it's an O.J. Simpson trial, and you spend one year with the Dream Team and spend millions to defend, you're going to see a disparity. But I think the issue should be framed more like, ensuring that everyone who comes to court, whether it's a civil matter or a criminal matter, is adequately represented. I think that's where we should approach it -- increasing lawyer referral service, increasing Rhode Island Legal Services, increasing pro bono work by our 5000 lawyers, beefing up the public defenders as much as we can, to ensure that there is adequate representation for all these people.

Q: You're known for your enthusiastic interest in Abraham Lincoln. How did you become so interested in him?

A: I was in the sixth grade, in a public school and I sat under a print of Lincoln, and was already interested in American history, and my teacher was great about encouraging this study, and then it took off from there. It was like the Horatio Alger story -- you know, if he could make it, I could make it. And then I started using my lunch money, all 25 cents of it a day, to buy used Lincoln books. In my early teens I wanted to become a lawyer, because Lincoln was a lawyer, and of course, what did you really know when you were 13 as to what your vocation should be, but I think it's worked out for me. I have no regrets on the law. And that's what started all this.

Q: How was Lincoln able to act so decisively when it came to slavery at a time when many white people, even if not supportive of slavery, thought of black people as being inferior?

A: Because he had the courage, the moral courage, and the leadership to act. By the way, it took him a while to come to this position because of the very reason that you said. He lived in a racist culture, he was a racist himself, within the confines of our culture at the time. People today tend to try to judge him by today's standards, rather than standards of the mid-19th century, but he came to the opinion during the war, early in the war that he could not have reunion -- which was utmost in his mind -- without emancipation, and he moved to this gradually until the spring of [18]62, when he drafted the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, and waited for the appropriate time to issue it, because he wanted to at least have enough support in the North, so that it would be meaningful.

You know, it's very hard to be a leader of a commander-in-chief and make these decisions, which are great decisions, if you can't look behind you and see the troops there with you. If you look behind you and no one is there, you're in deep trouble. Fortunately, he had enough support in the North to see it through, enough support with the soldiers in the army, the Union army, to see it through, because many of these soldiers either enlisted or were drafted with no intent or idea of emancipation . . . But he was able to bring these troops and the Northern public along in his changing policy.

Q: What are the primary lessons that Lincoln and his legacy hold for us today?

A: Uh, a lot: What good leadership can be; how much work it takes; taking nothing for granted; integrity, character, a high estimation of our form of government, our democracy; the value of a democracy -- its strength as well as its fragility; the stamina that it takes to be a leader. And if I could use a counterpoint in almost everything I just told you -- the exact opposite of the last president of the United States, who I think is the antithesis of Abraham Lincoln and diminished the institution of the presidency.

You don't lie to the American people, whether under oath or not. You don't have affairs in the executive mansion with interns. You don't take half the furniture in the White House, or whatever the amount of furniture, when you leave. You don't even accept $200,000 speaking engagements when you leave. You certainly don't pardon people like Marc Rich and others that have no redeeming quality. Lincoln's pardons went to sleeping sentinels in the Union army who deserved another chance.

Ian Donnis can be reached at idonnis@phx.com.

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