This op-ed appeared in The Providence Journal on April 24, 2012. Jeremiah S. Jeremiah, former Chief Judge of the Rhode Island Family Court, is a defendant in Alahverdian v. Rhode Island, a case pending in the U.S. District Court for the District of Rhode Island.
By Anne Grant
The Journal’s Tracy Breton reports that two Rhode Island lawyer-legislators have introduced a bill to honor retired Family Court Chief Judge Jeremiah S. Jeremiah Jr. with his own vanity plate (“Bill would create special license plate for retired R.I. Family Court Judge Jeremiah,” March 27).
Rhode Island taxpayers are already paying extravagantly for the license that Jeremiah took at the court he controlled for more than two decades.
Lawyer William Holt scolded me for criticizing the chief judge in the July 18, 1993, Journal (“R.I. court system further victimizes battered families”). Holt seethed: He seemed to say that it is called Family Court not just because it deals with family issues but because the court runs like a family, with then-Chief Judge Jeremiah like a father to the lawyers, who always came to his defense.
I was executive director of a shelter for battered mothers and their children. Many mistakenly think that mothers always win custody of children at court, but evidence shows that those parents with money to litigate and influential connections are far more likely to get the children — even those who have already punished their families with physical, emotional and sexual abuse.
Adversarial litigation often traumatizes families, subjecting them to the terrors of aggressive lawyers, manipulative psychologists and coercive court orders. When one of our clients delivered her children to their father for a court-ordered visit, he stabbed her to death.
We began to recognize a group at Family Court that we called the Cranston Cabal. They emerged from Cranston City Hall during the years Edward DiPrete was mayor, from 1978 to 1984. Bill Holt proved his value as DiPrete’s administrative assistant during a liquor-licensing imbroglio in the early 1980s.
Jeremiah paid his political dues as Republican chairman in Cranston. He spent 15 years as assistant city solicitor and six more as solicitor when DiPrete was mayor.
When DiPrete became governor, in 1985, Jeremiah advanced to the State House as executive counsel. Two years later, DiPrete’s turn came to fill a vacancy on Family Court, and he rewarded Jeremiah. Barely a year later, in1987, DiPrete called Judge Jeremiah his “closest friend” and made him chief of Family Court.
The Cranston Cabal also produced Family Court Judge Kathleen A. Voccola. Mayor Di-Prete named her to fill Jeremiah’s former position as assistant city solicitor in 1979. Then she became the first woman to be the state’s liquor control administrator. Governor DiPrete said the appointment was in line with his “continuing efforts to place qualified women in positions of authority and responsibility.”
Voccola was not the first woman that Republicans invited to fill out the GOP ticket with Di-Prete in 1988. She was sacrificial lamb against popular Atty. Gen. James O’Neil. A year later, DiPrete made her a judge on Family Court.
In 1989, the Ethics Commission began investigating charges that DiPrete had steered state contracts to campaign contributors. In 1991, a grand jury began hearing evidence of DiPrete’s pay-to-play extortion. In 1998, DiPrete made a plea deal to protect his son from prosecution and went to prison himself for bribery, extortion and racketeering. Without a public trial, the whole truth didn’t get out, and DiPrete’s friends on Family Court escaped unscathed.
Jeremiah skated away from his own brush with the Ethics Commission. He and Voccola sat on the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Commission, where she made, and he seconded, a 1997 motion that awarded $56,000 in federal money to a police organization that sublet space from Holt in Jeremiah’s Cranston office building and paid some of that rent directly to Jeremiah.
By the time a grievance against him reached the Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline in 1998, Voccola had been named to that body, and the commission found no basis for the complaint.
In 1999, the Ethics Commission also exonerated Jeremiah, rejecting a staff recommendation that had urged a full-blown ethics trial and provided 64 pages of findings and exhibits.
His unpretentious Cranston office building at 995 Park Ave. gave no clue to the power he wielded. His tenants seemed to gain preferential treatment and prominence at Family Court, where lawyers jockey for rich litigants in custody cases that can be dragged out for hundreds of billable hours until children turn 18.
Rhode Island had a time-honored tradition of letting the House speaker, Senate majority leader and governor take turns appointing their cronies as judges. In 1994, voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing the Judicial Nominating Commission (JNC) to recommend only highly qualified candidates for judgeships.
The General Assembly evaded the JNC process by letting chief judges appoint a vastly increased number of politically connected magistrates, and Jeremiah rewarded several with powers and salaries comparable to judges’.
In 1997, he brought David Tassoni to court as a law clerk intern. Tassoni had neither the college nor law-school degrees he claimed, but he rose quickly to a top administrative post, reporting directly to Jeremiah. He seemed ubiquitous, moving from courtroom to courtroom, making recommendations to judges that harmed children. In 2011, after the new chief judge, Haiganush Bedrosian, called in state police to investigate him, Tassoni left.
Instead of awarding Jeremiah an honorary license plate, the General Assembly should investigate the license he took: the exorbitant waste of public funds and the damages still done by the cabals of Rhode Island Family Court.
Anne Grant ( ParentingProject@cox.net ) writes about research into Family Court custody cases.