Pension lawyers mum after meeting with judge

Still no word on whether proposed settlement has been approved

R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter speaks during a court hearing in 2012.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Lawyers on both sides of Rhode Island’s high-stakes pension lawsuit met privately for roughly an hour Monday with R.I. Superior Court Judge Sarah Taft-Carter, but refused to comment afterwards due to an ongoing gag order.

Former R.I. Supreme Court Chief Justice Frank Williams, who has been the driving force behind a renewed effort to settle the suit in recent weeks, was among those seen leaving the meeting with Taft-Carter. But like everyone else involved, he declined to comment as he left Rhode Island Superior Court in Providence.

The lawyers made a short courtroom appearance with Taft-Carter at 2 p.m., then went into the meeting with her behind closed doors until about 3:15. Taft-Carter’s clerk told WPRI.com the lawyers discussed procedural issues relating to a previously scheduled court session Thursday, and were also told to remind their clients not to contact her independently after a few workers apparently did so over the weekend.

“The confidentiality order is still in effect,” John Tarantino, the lead attorney for the state in the suit, told WPRI.com as he departed. He said he and his colleagues are “still preparing for trial.”

It remains unclear where things stand with the effort to settle the pension suit. Retirees and workers voted on the proposed deal throughout the past week and a half, with union leaders saying voting had to be done last Friday. No information has been released on the outcome of the settlement vote, though at least some groups have approved it.

The lawyers are scheduled to be back in court Thursday to continue their arguments over motions for summary judgment in the case. The jury trial is set to start on April 20 if a settlement isn’t reached before then.

The court appearance came the same day the Rhode Island Broadcasters Association joined the Rhode Island Press Association and the ACLU in calling on Taft-Carter to lift the gag order so information can be made public about the proposed settlement.

At stake in the underlying lawsuit is whether Rhode Island legislators acted constitutionally three years ago when they reduced future retirement benefits to shave roughly $4 billion off the shortfall in the state’s pension fund for government workers and taxpayers.

The second effort to reach a settlement has picked up steam since Taft-Carter appointed Williams as the case’s special master earlier this month. She did so after denying the lawyers’ request to delay the April 20 trial date.

If the plaintiffs and Taft-Carter approve the proposed settlement, it would be sent to state lawmakers for them to enact into law. A leaked document shows the proposal would require taxpayers to put an additional $32 million into the pension fund in the first year after it takes effect.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com and writes the Nesi’s Notes blog. Follow him on Twitter: @tednesi

An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Judge Taft-Carter reprimanded lawyers in the case for contacting her through improper channels; she was actually reprimanding plaintiffs who had done so.

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