The Rhode Island ACLU has filed a “friend of the court” brief in the R.I. Supreme Court in the appeal addressing ethics charges against former state Senator William Irons. The brief challenges the Ethics Commission’s position that adoption of the constitutional amendment establishing the Commission effectively repealed the Constitution’s so-called “speech in debate clause” that provides immunity to state legislators for certain legislative actions. The ACLU brief called the Commission’s argument “a launch down a slippery slope of eroding the civil liberties of all Rhode Islanders who come before the Ethics Commission, not just Mr. Irons.”
A major argument of the Ethics Commission is that the constitutional power it was given in 1986 to address ethics issues over all elected officials in the state conflicts with the “speech in debate clause” and therefore limits by implication any protections provided to legislators by that clause. The ACLU brief rejects that position, arguing that “there are only two ways to amend the Rhode Island Constitution. ‘Amendment by limitation’ is not one of them.”
The brief, filed by attorneys Mark Freel and Jon Anderson from the law firm of Edwards Angell Palmer & Dodge, focuses on the ramifications of the Ethics Commission’s position for civil liberties generally: “Each of the historical arguments advanced by the Ethics Commission in support of its claim that the Ethics Amendment is paramount and ‘impliedly limits’ the Speech in Debate Clause could be recycled in the future to support the proposition that the Ethics Amendment trumps some other provision in the Rhode Island Constitution,” including state constitutional guarantees of freedom of speech and due process and a constitutional ban on the imposition of “excessive fines” by state agencies.
After arguing that the Supreme Court has “held that repeals by implication of rights embodied in the Rhode Island Constitution are disfavored,” the brief concludes by claiming that “there are no limits to the Ethics Commission’s ‘implied limitation’ argument. This Court, therefore, cannot, should not, and must not allow the Ethics Commission to drag this State into such uncharted territory.”
RI ACLU volunteer attorney Mark Freel said today: “Fundamental rights and liberties placed into our state constitution many years ago should not be removed or rescinded by guesswork or subtle interpretation, which is what the Ethics Commission suggests. Rather, those rights should remain intact, to protect all Rhode Islanders, until or unless they are repealed or modified by the very specific formal procedures in place for constitutional amendments.”