Rhode Island State House

via Rhode Island General Assembly

STATE HOUSE – Rep. Arthur J. Corvese today announced he will file legislation at the start of the 2021 legislative session to settle a question about what happens when the lieutenant governor’s position becomes vacant midterm.

State law does not spell out a process for how to replace a lieutenant governor who leaves the office before his or her term is up, whether due to resignation, death, inability to serve or elevation to governor.

There is a statute that says the General Assembly in Grand Committee – a meeting of the entire House and Senate together – is to elect a replacement should a lieutenant governor-elect become unable to serve, and Representative Corvese’s legislation would create a similar provision in the case of the lieutenant governor.

The situation first came to light in 1997 when Lieutenant Governor Robert Weygand left the office upon his election to Congress. Gov. Lincoln Almond appointed a Republican lawyer who had never served in any elected office, Bernard Jackvony, to fill the position, which at that time included the duty of presiding over the Senate. A Supreme Court battle erupted between the governor and the Senate over whether the governor had the power to appoint a successor. Although the court ruled in favor of the governor’s appointment, it suggested the General Assembly could pass a law clarifying the issue and giving itself the power to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office.

However, although a bill was introduced that year, it was never passed amid questions about the constitutionality of an attempt to make it apply retroactively to the vacancy created that year.
Representative Corvese’s bill is aimed at finally resolving the issue.

“The fact is, neither the Rhode Island Constitution nor the General Laws say what is supposed to happen if the lieutenant governor leaves office. There’s a provision for all the other general officers. There’s a law that says what to do if a lieutenant governor-elect can’t serve. There’s even a law that describes what to do if both the governor and the lieutenant governor are both vacant at once, but there is no law that applies just to a vacancy in the lieutenant governor’s office,” said Representative Corvese (D-Dist. 55, North Providence). “In every one of those cases, the law says the General Assembly in Grand Committee is to elect a successor, so my bill enacts the same process for a vacancy of the lieutenant governor.”

Representative Corvese introduced this legislation each year from 2013 through 2017, and it passed the House for the first three of those years. He is optimistic that legislators in both chambers will be interested in finally settling the issue now. He plans to introduce the bill on the first day of session and push for fast-track passage in the General Assembly.

“We’ve been aware of this loophole for more than two decades. It makes no sense to leave this question unanswered, particularly when there’s a simple solution that’s already established for all similar situations involving vacancy in this office. I look forward to finally addressing this in the upcoming session,” said Representative Corvese.