Rhode Island governor’s attempt to avoid subpoenas in toll lawsuit denied

December 2020/January 2021

Tyson Fisher

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An attempt by Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo and other state officials to avoid subpoenas in the American Trucking Associations’ toll lawsuit was struck down by a federal court.

In October, Judge William E. Smith of the U.S. District Court in Rhode Island denied Rhode Island’s motion to quash subpoenas for Raimondo, Speaker Nicholas Mattiello and Rep. Stephen Ucci. State officials attempted to invoke government privilege to evade subpoenas filed by ATA in July.

Specifically, Raimondo and her colleagues claimed legislative privilege and undue burden, with Raimondo adding deliberative process privilege. Legislative privilege protects lawmakers’ statements made in their capacity as a lawmaker, including statements published in papers. The trio of officials also argued that setting time aside for depositions causes an undue burden while they deal with a pandemic. Lastly, deliberative process privilege protects information that is part of the decision-making process at the executive level.

In his decision, Judge Smith acknowledged there are two schools of thought regarding legislative privilege: absolute and qualified.

Although the privilege is more absolute for federal lawmakers, Judge Smith ruled that privileges for state lawmakers is “undeniably weaker.”

In the denial, the court poked holes in the absolutist argument. Specifically, the argument allows for an exemption where federal interests are at stake.

“By definition, that is a qualified privilege,” Judge Smith stated.

According to court documents, determining deliberative process privilege uses the same five-factor test as legislative privilege.

Although precedent discourages calling high-ranking government officials as witnesses, it also allows depositions where the official has firsthand knowledge of the claim that no one else could have.

In this case, ATA is looking into the intentions of the officials.

As pointed out by the court, Raimondo, Mattiello and Ucci “clearly have firsthand knowledge that cannot be fully supplied from anyone else.”

With the court denying attempts to avoid subpoenas, ATA can now move forward obtaining testimony from Raimondo and other officials. LL

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Tyson Fisher

Tyson Fisher joined Land Line Magazine in March 2014. An award-winning journalist and tireless researcher, his news reports, features and blogs bring depth to our editorial content, backed with solid detail. Tyson is a lifelong Kansas Citian.