Lacking a professional sports team, political scandal ranks – in some eyes­­­ – as Rhode Island’s true spectator sport.

That, at least, is the opinion of a sizable number of political insiders.

In a matter of days, however, voters in the Ocean State will have an opportunity to take a step toward cleaning up its act by subjecting the freewheeling R.I. legislature to supervision by the state’s Ethics Commission.

Question 2 on the November 8 ballot, would accomplish this deed.

The R.I. Supreme Court, which some may say has its own colorful history of shady incidents, in 2009 effectively nullified the public oversight implicit in a 1986 amendment to the state’s constitution that had been approved by voters.

Joining Morning Edition host Bob Seay to discuss the prospects for Question 2 was Ross Cheit, chairperson of the R.I. Ethics Commission.

Cheit explained that the state Supreme Court relied on something knows as the “Speech and Debate Clause” to exempt the legislature from accountability.

The Speech and Debate Clause, a provision of the U.S. Constitution, appears in many state constitutions as well. The clause in intended is to protect legislators from lawsuits – frivolous or serious – that may result from elected officials carrying out public business.

Cheit, in effect, draws a distinction between legal and illegal behavior and holds that it is up to the Ethic Commission to determine which is which.

Although Cheit welcomes Question 2, he says that the voters already expressed their intent in 1986. What R.I. is really doing, Cheit said, is once again asking: “Is that really what you want?”

In June, both chambers of the R.I. legislature voted to put the question on the ballot.


Cheit speculates that a change in the local political mood exemplified by Sen. Bernie Sander’s victory in the state primary earlier in the year combined with a sense of outrage over the resignation of Representative Ray Gallison Jr. Gallison was involved in a scandal that involved allegations of prostitution and embezzlement.

In the wake of the Gallison incident, the leadership thought action was necessary.

Voters, Cheit predicted, will vote in favor of Question 2 saying, “I think that what we’ll see is that voters have always thought that legislatures should be subject to a code of ethics.”