Judge rules constitution blocks legal action against lawmakers during session

General Assembly members are exempt from certain legal action while they're in session according to a judge.

PROVIDENCE, RI (WPRI) – A motion was recently denied in a civil suit aimed at state Rep. Thomas Palangio in part due to the state constitution’s speech in debate clause, which the judge ruled exempts General Assembly members from arrest and property attachment while the legislature is in session.

Palangio, a Providence Democrat who represents House District 3, is being sued by his cousin Michael Salvatore, who claims he paid Palangio $170,000 over several years since 2005 to buy a piece of property in Pawtucket. Salvatore asserts he never received the title or access to the property.

Salvatore first filed the complaint in 2014, alleging that Palangio told him, “I don’t have to pay up with you anymore. I’m a [expletive deleted] state rep. now. If you continue to bother me, I’ll get a restraining order and have you thrown off the [expletive deleted] state tow list.” Palangio told Target 12 the claim was ridiculous.

Salvatore filed a motion for a pre-judgment attachment on one of Palangio’s properties to secure what he might be owed after a potential judgment.

But Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Lanphear cited the Rhode Island constitution’s speech in debate clause clause, which reads in part, “members of the General Assembly shall be exempt from arrest and their estates from attachment in any civil action during the session of the general assembly.”

Judge Lanphear referred to the clause when he denied the motion in an April 28 hearing, but agreed to reconsider the motion at Thursday morning’s proceeding. His decision didn’t change.

“The court continues to be troubled by the constitutional provision,” Lanphear said. “It is an older provision. It is a provision we’ve rarely touched on in case law.”

Judge Lanphear, who also denied the motion on its merits, said he believed the clause dated back to the 1840s, referencing “the Dorr War,” the famed Rhode Island rebellion sparked by Thomas Dorr.

He then spoke to the document’s language.

“All the sentences in the constitution can’t be much clearer,” he said. “The property of a legislator can’t be attached when they’re in session.”

Salvatore’s attorney, Michael Mineau, argued the speech in debate clause pertains to “core legislative duties,” not to cases like this one, which he pointed out developed mostly before Palangio was elected to the General Assembly in 2013. (This is Palangio’s second stint in the House, following five terms from 1992 to 2002.)

Mineau also argued that deferring to the arcane clause would give him and his client only six months of the year to gather evidence and get Palangio to court.

“I believe that this order will continually be used as a shield to try to prevent the plaintiff from advancing this case to trial,” Mineau told the court.

Palangio, who was not in court due to health reasons, is represented by Rep. John DeSimone, D-Providence, who serves as House majority leader and sits next to Palangio in the chamber.

Before Lanphear’s decision, DeSimone argued that neither the motion nor the case has merit.

“We intend to fight this case vigorously,” DeSimone said. “But due to my client’s health, it’s been stayed somewhat.”

Mineau told the court that there’s a need to attach a lien to Palangio’s property since he also owes the state about $130,000 in income taxes, which places him 28th on the state’s list of top 100 income tax delinquents.

DeSimone indicated Palangio is negotiating with the state about the taxes, and he questioned the real estate claim.

“Never a closing set up,” DeSimone said. “Never a title search, no real estate attorney. Nothing, judge.”

DeSimone’s arguments did not mention the speech in debate clause.

Neither side would comment outside the courtroom.

Send tips to Target 12 Investigator Walt Buteau at wbuteau@wpri.com and follow him on Twitter @wbuteau

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