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
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
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user-friendly, modernizing technology and outdated court buildings, and moving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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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 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
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 email@example.com.