In re Request for Advisory Op. (Crmc), No. 2007-370-M.P.

CourtUnited States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
Citation961 A.2d 930
Decision Date18 December 2008
PartiesIn re REQUEST FOR ADVISORY OPINION FROM The HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES (COASTAL RESOURCES MANAGEMENT COUNCIL).
Docket NumberNo. 2007-370-M.P.
961 A.2d 930
In re REQUEST FOR ADVISORY OPINION FROM The HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES (COASTAL RESOURCES MANAGEMENT COUNCIL).
No. 2007-370-M.P.
Supreme Court of Rhode Island.
December 18, 2008.

[961 A.2d 931]

Sandra Lanni, Warwick, for the Rhode Island House of Representatives.

Joseph S. Larisa, Providence, for the Office of the Governor.

Rebecca Tedford Partington, Providence, for the Office of the Attorney General.

[961 A.2d 932]

Present: WILLIAMS, C.J., FLAHERTY, SUTTELL, and ROBINSON, JJ.


To the Honorable, the House of Representatives of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations:

We have received your request seeking the advice of the justices of this Court, in accordance with the provisions of article 10, section 3 of the Rhode Island Constitution, concerning legislation (2007-H 6266) that is presently pending before the House of Representatives. The questions propounded are as follows:

"(1) Would the proposed act, if duly enacted into law, which permits members of the General Assembly to sit as members of the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) as set forth in R.I.G.L. 46-23-2(a)(1), violate the constitutional amendment to Article IX, Section 5, so called Separation of Powers Amendment, passed by the electorate on November 2, 2004, which calls into question the constitutionality of the appointing authority?

"(2) Would the proposed act, if duly enacted into law, permit the Speaker of the House to appoint public members to the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) as set forth in R.I.G.L. 46-23-2(a)(1)?

"(3) Is the Constitutional Amendment to Article IX, Section 5, so-called Separation of Powers Amendment, passed by the electorate on November 2, 2004, which calls into question the constitutionality of the appointing authority, self executing or does it require legislative enactment for its implementation?

"(4) Is the Coastal Resources Management Council (CRMC) by its nature, purpose, and operation a legislative function * * *[?]"

Pursuant to the provisions of article 10, section 3 of the Rhode Island Constitution it is our duty to issue an advisory opinion at the request of the House of Representatives1 when the question concerns the constitutionality of pending legislation. In re Advisory Opinion (Chief Justice), 507 A.2d 1316, 1318 (R.I.1986). We would note, however, that this particular request for an advisory opinion comes to us under somewhat unusual circumstances: the pending legislation (2007-H 6266) is, in effect, a reenactment (with virtually no substantive alteration) of the CRMC enabling statute that is currently in force. See G.L.1956 (2007 reenactment) chapter 23 of title 46. Requests for advisory opinions concerning the "constitutionality of existing statutes which require implementation by the Chief Executive" may only be propounded by the Governor. In re Advisory Opinion (Chief Justice), 507 A.2d at 1319 (emphasis added). In view of that principle, the House's constitutional authorization to propound the above-quoted questions to the justices of this Court is somewhat less than self-evident. However, the existence of significant questions of law in an area of important public concern has convinced us, not without some hesitation, that we should respond. We would respectfully note, however, that in the future we may be less inclined to respond substantively to requests for advisory opinions that come to us from either chamber of the General Assembly under circumstances similar to those here present.2

961 A.2d 933

For the reasons set forth below, it is our opinion that question (1) and the first clause of question (3) should be answered in the affirmative and questions (2) and (4) should be answered in the negative.

I
The Separation of Powers Amendments

In November of 2004, the electorate of the State of Rhode Island approved the so-called separation of powers amendments. These amendments ushered in four fundamental changes to the Rhode Island Constitution and, for the first time in Rhode Island's history, clearly and explicitly established three separate and distinct departments of government.

Those fundamental changes may be summarized as follows:

(1) Article 3, section 6 was amended to preclude legislators from serving on state boards, commissions, or other state or quasi-public entities that exercise executive power;

(2) Article 5 was amended to provide that the powers of the Rhode Island government are distributed into "three separate and distinct departments";

(3) Article 6, section 10, which had vested broad "continuing powers" in the General Assembly, was repealed; and

(4) Article 9, section 5 was amended to give the Governor appointment power with respect to members of any state or quasi-public entities exercising executive power, subject to the advice and consent of the Senate.

The doctrine of separation of powers, which is now expressly established in the Rhode Island Constitution, declares that governmental powers at the state level are divided among "three separate and distinct departments."3 In practice, this doctrine operates to confine legislative powers to the legislature, executive powers to the executive department, and judicial powers to the judiciary, precluding one branch of the government from usurping the powers of another.4 R.I. Const. art. 5.

961 A.2d 934

While there can be no doubt that the separation of powers amendments constitute an important recalibration of the system of checks and balances within our state government, we do not view the amendments as effectuating a wholesale reallocation of power among the executive and the legislative departments. We emphasize, however, that the pendulum has not now swung to the opposite extreme with the adoption of the 2004 constitutional amendments. While the formal incorporation of the doctrine of separation of powers into the Constitution has established a somewhat different balance of power among the departments from that which existed previously, it would be overly simplistic and patently erroneous to view the amendments as somehow subordinating the role of the legislative branch to that of the executive.

It is incontestably true that, for most of its history, the Rhode Island General Assembly enjoyed significantly more power than did the legislatures of most of our sister states. See generally City of Pawtucket v. Sundlun, 662 A.2d 40, 44 (R.I. 1995); Kennedy v. State, 654 A.2d 708, 710-11 (R.I.1995); Nugent v. City of East Providence, 103 R.I. 518, 525-26, 238 A.2d 758, 762 (1968).5 A few years prior to the adoption of the separation of powers amendments, in In re Advisory Opinion to the Governor (Rhode Island Ethics Commission —Separation of Powers), 732 A.2d 55 (R.I.1999), four justices of this Court discussed at some length the rather unique history of our colonial and state governance. They noted that, as of that time (1999), "the Legislature continued to exercise substantial executive functions by electing all judicial officers as well as many officers who might be considered part of the executive branch," and they concluded that "Rhode Island's history is that of a quintessential system of parliamentary supremacy." Id. at 64. The justices also observed, however, that "only the people of Rhode Island may change the structure of their government," and they further observed that "the sole and proper procedure for restricting legislators from serving on or appointing [other persons] to executive boards and commissions is through an amendment to the constitution approved by the electorate * * *." Id. at 72.

961 A.2d 935

As previously noted, in November of 2004 the electorate of Rhode Island approved four such amendments. As a result, separation of powers is now a principle that is firmly established within our state's organic law, whereby the fundamental powers of government are distributed among its three coordinate branches. We are also mindful, however, of Mr. Justice Jackson's exegetical comment with respect to the Constitution of the United States:

"While the Constitution diffuses power the better to secure liberty, it also contemplates that practice will integrate the dispersed powers into a workable government. It enjoins upon its branches separateness but interdependence, autonomy but reciprocity." Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579, 635, 72 S.Ct. 863, 96 L.Ed. 1153 (1952) (Jackson, J., concurring).

This Court has said that, in construing constitutional amendments, our chief function is to give effect to the intent of the framers. State ex rel. Webb v. Cianci, 591 A.2d 1193, 1201 (R.I.1991); Bailey v. Baronian, 120 R.I. 389, 391, 394 A.2d 1338, 1339 (1978) (citing In re House of Representatives, 45 R.I. 289, 120 A. 868 (1923)). In doing so, we rely on the well-established rule of constitutional construction that, when words in a constitution are free from ambiguity, they are to be given their plain, ordinary, and usually accepted meaning. Davis v. Hawksley, 119 R.I. 453, 455, 379 A.2d 922, 923 (1977). When the language at issue is clear, we need look no further. In the lapidary words of a distinguished federal appellate court: "Statutory construction begins with the plain text, and, `where the statutory language provides a clear answer, it ends there as well.'" Raila v. United States, 355 F.3d 118, 120 (2d Cir.2004) (quoting Hughes Aircraft Co. v. Jacobson, 525 U.S. 432, 438, 119 S.Ct. 755, 142 L.Ed.2d 881 (1999)); see also Connecticut National Bank v. Germain, 503 U.S. 249, 253-54, 112 S.Ct. 1146, 117 L.Ed.2d 391 (1992); State v. Martini, 860 A.2d 689, 691 (R.I. 2004); State v. Benoit, 650 A.2d 1230, 1232 (R.I.1994).6

The proponents and drafters of the constitutional amendments, which were designed to bring about a greater degree of separation of powers in Rhode Island's governmental structure, manifestly carried out their task with precision. Certain powers of the General Assembly were explicitly curtailed, while others were...

To continue reading

Request your trial
52 practice notes
  • Champlin's Realty Associates v. Tikoian, No. 2009-113-M.P.
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • February 18, 2010
    ...our advisory opinion entitled In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930 (R.I.2008). We advised in that opinion that proposed legislation permitting lawmakers to sit as members of the CRMC, and allowing the Gener......
  • State v. Germane, No. 2006-169-C.A.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • June 2, 2009
    ...Constitution. See generally In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930, 933-35 (R.I.2008) (discussing the separation of powers doctrine in the context of the Rhode Island While appellant concedes that the General......
  • Irons v. Rhode Island Ethics Com'n, No. 2008-335-M.P..
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • June 29, 2009
    ...our constitution. See In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930, 935 n. 6 18. We would like to express our gratitude to the amici curiae for the helpful and informative briefs submitted to this Court. ----------......
  • In re McKenna, No. 2014–148–M.P.
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • February 27, 2015
    ...powers to the judiciary * * *.” In re Request for Advisory Opinion from House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930, 933 (R.I.2008). Just as “the separation of powers amendments did not, either explicitly or implicitly,[ ] limit or abolish the power of 110 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results
52 cases
  • Champlin's Realty Associates v. Tikoian, No. 2009-113-M.P.
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • February 18, 2010
    ...our advisory opinion entitled In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930 (R.I.2008). We advised in that opinion that proposed legislation permitting lawmakers to sit as members of the CRMC, and allowing the Gener......
  • State v. Germane, No. 2006-169-C.A.
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • June 2, 2009
    ...Constitution. See generally In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930, 933-35 (R.I.2008) (discussing the separation of powers doctrine in the context of the Rhode Island While appellant concedes that the General......
  • Irons v. Rhode Island Ethics Com'n, No. 2008-335-M.P..
    • United States
    • United States State Supreme Court of Rhode Island
    • June 29, 2009
    ...our constitution. See In re Request for Advisory Opinion from the House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930, 935 n. 6 18. We would like to express our gratitude to the amici curiae for the helpful and informative briefs submitted to this Court. ----------......
  • In re McKenna, No. 2014–148–M.P.
    • United States
    • Rhode Island Supreme Court
    • February 27, 2015
    ...powers to the judiciary * * *.” In re Request for Advisory Opinion from House of Representatives (Coastal Resources Management Council), 961 A.2d 930, 933 (R.I.2008). Just as “the separation of powers amendments did not, either explicitly or implicitly,[ ] limit or abolish the power of 110 ......
  • Request a trial to view additional results

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT