Rod Driver

From The Providence Journal, April 14, 2000

Don't Succumb to 'Learned Helplessness'


AFTER REPEATED DEFEATS, a subject in a psychological experiment may just stop trying, concluding that nothing he or she does can make a difference. Ten years ago Martin Seligman published his studies and introduced the term "learned helplessness" to describe the condition.

Many Rhode Islanders appear to suffer "learned helplessness" after years of abuse and defeat at the hands of our state government. But if we care for our state we must not give up.

The most outrageous recent abuses involve our court system, more specifically the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline and the Rhode Island Supreme Court itself regarding the abuses in the traffic court. Two years ago a remarkable series of investigative reports by the Journal's Christopher Rowland and Jonathan Saltzman detailed almost unbelievable abuses at the traffic court.

Highly paid judges in that patronage-laden court worked short hours, while cases backed up for years. Thousands of motorists were ordered to pay fines or suffer license suspension without a hearing. Judges dismissed appeals, saying that they had "reviewed" transcripts of the hearings -- even when those "transcripts" did not exist because the "hearings" had never happened. Also the court could not account for $39 million in "uncollected" fines.

Meanwhile, the judges collected salaries from $86,000 to $100,000 while "working" just a few hours a week.

So Operation Clean Government did exactly what one ought to do in the face of compelling evidence of judicial misconduct. It filed a complaint against six of the judges with the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline.

That 14-member commission -- which happens to be made up entirely of judges and lawyers -- found nothing wrong with the behavior of four of the judges named in the complaint. It did eventually issue a "private reprimand" to the traffic court's chief judge, Vincent Pallozzi. However, the public will never know what that reprimand said nor why the commission considered this the appropriate penalty for the abuse thousands of Rhode Islanders suffered at the hands of Pallozzi's court. The "private reprimand" is so meaningless that it will not even affect Pallozzi's pension for life -- $70,780 a year plus annual cost-of-living increases -- at taxpayers' expense.

Complaints against the sixth judge remain unresolved. Judge John F. Lallo filed for bankruptcy while collecting his salary of $94,000 a year and spending much of his time at the Foxwoods casino. (If newspaper reports are correct, in several years he spent more days at the gambling tables than he did in court.) But the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline must have found Lallo's case extraordinarily difficult. After two years it is still in the secret "preliminary-investigation" stage.

So last year Operation Clean Government appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court. That produced another outrageous result. The Supreme Court did not even hear arguments before deciding that everything was fine, and that OCG's complaint "borders upon the frivolous."

Perhaps it is impossible to force the commission to act responsibly. But it would help if we could remove some of the secrecy shielding unfit judges from accountability. Consider the following comparison: When an ordinary citizen is accused of an offense he or she can be arrested, and his or her name and picture can be published in the newspaper and on television long before anyone investigates the validity of the charges. Remember the horrors endured by a University of Rhode Island student accused of rape a few years ago before it was eventually conceded that he had been 1,000 miles away when the alleged attack occurred?

No one should be lynched in the media before charges are proved. But a judge accused of an offense has extraordinary protection. Upon receipt of a complaint against a judge, the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline first looks at the case (in secret) to make sure the charges are not "unfounded or frivolous." Only if the charges pass that test does it proceed to a "preliminary investigation" (also secret).

If the commission so chooses, it can dismiss the charges or it can issue a (secret) "private reprimand" without ever revealing why it found the charges insignificant. On the other hand, if it feels there might be a problem, it can continue the "preliminary investigation" apparently indefinitely. The case of Judge Lallo shows that the secret "preliminary investigation" can bury a matter for years. (Perhaps the public will forget it.)

Only if the commission declares that there is "substantial evidence" supporting a charge of judicial unfitness is it obliged to proceed to a public hearing -- and no one but this group of 14 lawyers and judges (listed at oversees that decision.

Despite the outrageous rulings, Operation Clean Government has not succumbed to "learned helplessness." It is now proposing small changes in the law to remove part of the fig leaf protecting unfit judges: (1) If the commission cannot figure out what to do after 60 days of secret investigation, then a public hearing ought to be automatic. (A public hearing is not a conviction, of course; it is a forum for the presentation and examination of evidence to get at the truth.) (2) In the case of a complaint involving a "pattern of misconduct" (as distinguished from a complaint by a dissatisfied litigant), if the commission decides that no public hearing is justified, then the findings of the preliminary investigation ought to automatically become public.

Common Cause has also been working on the problem, and it proposes a new composition for the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline so that it cannot be composed entirely of lawyers and judges. State. Sen. Marc Cote will introduce bills in the General Assembly embodying the proposals of Operation Clean Government and Common Cause.

In view of Rhode Island's history, we can expect an uphill battle over these bills. Any Rhode Islander who has not succumbed to "learned helplessness" can contact Operation Clean Government or Common Cause to help.

Rod Driver, a former state representative and professor of mathematics emeritus at the University of Rhode island, is a member of Operation Clean Government's Judicial Reform Committee.

(The day after this article appeared, the Providence Journal reported that retired traffic-court judge John F. Lallo had been indicted by a federal grand jury -- not a Rhode Island authority -- on charges of perjury with respect to his bankruptcy filing. He was alleged to have concealed payments to creditors, including Foxwoods gambling casino.)