By JOHN HOWELL "e;I think I have a story for you,"e; Francis X. Flaherty said early Saturday morning. Flaherty was wearing black, but not the black robes of his attire as an Associate Supreme Court Justice, a post he has held for nearly 18 years. Rather, he
“I think I have a story for you,” Francis X. Flaherty said early Saturday morning.
Flaherty was wearing black, but not the black robes of his attire as an Associate Supreme Court Justice, a post he has held for nearly 18 years. Rather, he was dressed in shorts as he entered Tennis Rhode Island.
I have known Justice Flaherty since he served on the Warwick City Council and in 1978 entered a hotly contested three-way Democratic primary for the party’s nomination for mayor.
Indeed, Justice Flaherty had a story. At the age of 73, he has decided to retire from the Supreme Court as of Dec. 31.
Following tennis, we arranged to talk on Monday. The telephone interview lasted about a half hour. Toward the end, we talked about the state Ethics Commission decision to fine him $200 for not disclosing on yearly financial reporting forms that he was president of the Catholic legal group, the St. Thomas More Society of Rhode Island.
Flaherty was outraged and appealed the ruling. The action made headlines and was fodder for commentary that questioned his logic. In the end, Superior Court Judge Brian Stern found that the Ethic Commission failed to show Flaherty had deliberately or intentionally omitted the information. Flaherty was vindicated, but as often the case, the story wasn’t given much ink. The whole matter still irks Flaherty and leaves him to conclude that is one of aspects of holding a public office. Now he is stepping back from that role.
The following is a digest of our conversation. Why he is retiring
“I just think that I’ve reached the time where I would like a little bit more flexibility in my life. And, and I have some other interests that I want to pursue while I still have good health and high energy. I’m certainly not going because I’m sick of this … It’s great work, I enjoy coming into work every single day.”
Flaherty explained he could have retired at full pay at the age of 70, but he wasn’t ready to leave. (His current salary, according to the court system, is $211,101; his pension will be an average of his three highest years of pay). Additionally, once retired, he is subject to recall depending on the needs of the court. He would not receive added pay, for as he notes, he retires on full pay.
“I want to pursue some other things educationally. You know, I’m thinking about getting a master’s degree in history, which is a love of mine. And some other things that I want to do. So I just think it’s time.” Later in the interview, he talked about teaching and then those things he can’t do as a retired judge.
“I can’t start a real estate business. I certainly can’t start practicing law. I can’t run for office. I can’t work for the state, the federal government, I can’t, you know, we’re still as restricted as we were. We were actively on the bench.” Making decisions
Flaherty talked about other difficult decisions in his life, including those to run for mayor and later to run for governor a second time in 1992 when he came close to beating incumbent Gov. Bruce Sundlun in a primary. None of those decisions, he said, have been black and white.
Asked what he considered some of the most important cases considered by the court during his tenure, Flaherty didn’t hesitate to name the court’s decision of July 2008 overturning the lower court’s decision that found three former manufacturers of lead paint liable for creating a public nuisance by covering up the health risks of the product. He followed up with this year’s decision upholding the Superior Court’s denial of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s bid to unseal documents related to the grand jury investigation into the collapse of 38 Studios.
He pointed out that on average, the court considered 35 cases a month and averaged 215 cases a year during his first 10 years on the bench. He said the pace has since slowed in what he deemed is a reduction in litigation. He said the court is now averaging about 160 cases a year.
Do you see the State Supreme Court as having a bent, whether conservative or liberal, as is the case with the U.S. Supreme Court?“The ones that are in the Northeast with the state courts, our supreme courts are primarily appointed. I don’t see that kind of stark division. You just can’t count how a particular judge is going to feel on a particular case, like, you know, in the U.S. Supreme Court.”
Do you think that there should be an age or time limit for judges?“Massachusetts has an age 70 rule and I think that's too young … I’m still at the top of my game … All of us are over 70. And so I think that's too young. Whether there should be some limitation, I think it’s open for debate … there are strong arguments on both sides.”
What about getting younger people on the bench?“Clearly if people stay on too long, it blocks a whole generation of lawyers. I think that’s open to debate as well. You can’t be too young coming on here. You have to have been around long enough to have gotten a lot of experience, both with the law and, you know, in life.”
Flaherty endorses the judicial nomination process. “I don’t see any crying need to change it at this point.” He also feels the system is adequately staffed to address the workload.
Reminiscing, Flaherty listed all the jobs he’s had starting with a paperboy, “a recreational playground leader, highway laborer, sanitation worker, a grocery clerk and industrial floor washer, a foundry worker, a soldier, a marketing rep, a lawyer, mayor and justice.”
As an Army platoon leader, Flaherty experienced about 80 firefights during his year of service in Vietnam. He said that year continues to be the most important experience of his life, during which he worked and interacted with people in times of great stress.
“There’s two definitions of war that I liked. One was the incompetent, urging the unwilling to do the impossible. And the other was that it’s hours and days of boredom, punctuated by moments of terror. And so, you know, I lived through that. I developed a lot of leadership skills and you know, it’s just a part of life that it's not pleasant, but not everybody gets to see it. I was lucky to get through it physically, mentally, and emotionally. And it was just an important part of my life.”
Flaherty was awarded the Bronze Star for Valor.
“This has sort of been the most interesting part of it [life]. I’m blessed to get named. And I’m forever grateful to Gov. Carcieri for naming me. And I found it to be just the most interesting and consuming work. I mean, I love being mayor as well. So it's hard to pick between the two. But I suppose since this is the most recent, this is the one that that’s, that strikes me now … I just think that it’s the right time for me to pursue some other things, while I’m still young and healthy. I’m not young. Let me take that back. While I’m still healthy and energetic.”
He has no intention of leaving the tennis court.