Politics has seldom made stranger bedfellows than those exposed when the RI ACLU hopped into the sack with former state senator William Irons. The ACLU is supporting the former senator in an upcoming appeal of Superior Court Judge Francis Darigan's rejection of the Rhode Island Ethics Commission's assumed right to sanction Irons. Darigan says Irons's voting record on legislation potentially favoring his insurance clients (most prominently CVS) cannot be questioned under the state's "Speech in Debate" clause.
In both the Rhode Island and US constitutions, that clause declares, "For any speech in debate in either house, no member shall be questioned in any other place." The ACLU's commitment to do battle for every citizen's constitutional protection brings it to Irons's defense.
As a state senator, Irons wasn't exactly a poster boy for civil liberties. If he supported legislation the ACLU also backed, he probably did so as a political Democrat, not a committed civil libertarian. Those who knew Irons soon became familiar with his street smarts and his "practical" approach to political survival, neither of which often concerned themselves with the letter of the law — constitutional, civil, or otherwise.
RI ACLU head Steve Brown, however, is focused on the need to harness the 1986 act barring current and future laws from limiting the Ethics Commission's investigational powers. Brown worries that an unchecked Ethics Commission would become "the fourth branch of [Rhode Island] government and one more powerful than the other three combined."
Darigan has either rejected or overlooked the choice available to Irons to recuse himself from all votes that placed him in a conflict of interest. Then again, exercising such an option would have been less helpful to his clients, such as CVS.
Around the time of the mid-May appeal, Darigan will also find out whether or not he made the short list to be sent to Governor Carcieri from which the next State Supreme Court Chief Justice will be chosen. By making this controversial Irons decision — on the heels of his equally unpopular Station fire decision — Darigan goes into the final selection round carrying a great deal of water.
The local ACLU, meanwhile, has chosen a defense almost as distasteful to Rhode Islanders as the Illinois ACLU's defense of American Nazis to march in Skokie was for many residents there.
Attorney Robert Wechsler, writing on CityEthics.org, reminds us that Rhode Island taxpayers weighed in on the Irons question by voting out Irons's replacement, Senator Joseph Montalbano (who was fined $12,000 for ethics violations).
Wechsler adds, "They also voted out the chair of the senate finance committee, in a primary. This has surely sent a message more powerful than any fine."
That may be. But in the pending Darigan appeal, it is doubtful that anyone potentially injured by Irons — from consumers to fellow lawmakers to Judge Darigan — will benefit as much as Irons in this ironic example of the blindness of justice.