Panel recommends removal of Judge Ovalles

RI Supreme Court must make decision on future of state's first Hispanic judge

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The R.I. Supreme Court Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline has recommended that the high court remove Judge Rafael Ovalles as a state District Court judge.

In a 240-page report issued Wednesday, the commission said Ovalles had committed 41 violations of the Rhode Island Code of Judicial Conduct. The inquiry was sparked by allegations against him of misconduct and incompetence.

The 14-member panel said it made its recommendation “with great solemnity.”

“Based on the voluminous record and the number of credible testifying witnesses at the public hearing, the tally of Judge Ovalles’s acts of misconduct is extensive,” the panel said, criticizing what its members described as his “uneven temperament, his lack of competence, and his vindictiveness.”

The 41 violations cited by the commission include a wide variety legal errors; disrespectful treatment of attorneys; sexually charged comments, such as suggesting a clerk could come watch him “suck on my lollipop;” leaving the bench “at whim;” and “coercing defendants into accepting plea deals.”

In response to the report, former Providence Mayor Angel Taveras – who is an attorney as well as Ovalles’s nephew, and served on his legal defense team – said his lawyers “strongly disagree with the commission’s process and recommendation in this matter and will pursue all legal remedies available to Judge Ovalles.”

A court spokeswoman said Ovalles now has 20 days to petition to reject or modify the commission’s report, after which the commission will have 20 days to file a rebuttal. The Supreme Court, which makes the final decision on removing judges, will have 90 days to review the findings.

The vote to recommend Ovalles’s removal was 13-1, with the sole no vote cast by Workers’ Compensation Court Judge Hugo Ricci Jr. Ricci instead recommended that Ovalles be suspended and ordered to take classes at the National Judicial College as well as receive treatment for anger management and sexual harassment.

Perhaps the most eyebrow-raising allegations against Ovalles were suggestions that court employees had seen him with his pants either off or partially unzipped. The panel’s final report did not find the former allegation credible, but reprimanded Ovalles for not always wearing proper attire in chambers.

“Regardless of Judge Ovalles’s medical issues, it is totally improper to allow court employees or anyone that Judge Ovalles has contact with in the workplace to view him in a partial state of undress,” the report said. “This behavior undermines the public perception of the judiciary and the dignity of judicial office.”

Citing that passage, Taveras said Ovalles “was vindicated on the most salacious allegation in the commission’s complaint,” declaring that the accusation “regarding Judge Ovalles’ ‘propensity to remove his pants’ in chambers was shown to be patently false.”

Ovalles, who immigrated to Rhode Island from the Dominican Republic at age 10, became the state’s first Hispanic judge when he was appointed to the bench in 2005 by then-Gov. Don Carcieri.

After repeated reassignments by Chief Judge Jeanne Lafazia, Ovalles was finally relieved of his duties in December 2015 due to the various complaints about his behavior.

The judicial tenure panel held an 18-day hearing into Ovalles earlier this year, including 55 witnesses, to determine its recommendation. In addition to Taveras, Ovalles’s defense team also included former House Speaker William Murphy.

Ted Nesi (tnesi@wpri.com) covers politics and the economy for WPRI.com. He writes Nesi’s Notes on Saturdays and hosts Executive Suite. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook