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Neronha’s social media posts angered a judge. Now he could be investigated for misconduct.

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Neronha’s social media posts angered a judge. Now he could be investigated for misconduct.

Dec 08, 2023 | 12:37 pm ET
By Nancy Lavin
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Neronha’s social media posts angered a judge. Now he could be investigated for misconduct.
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Rhode Island Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel Procaccini offered a scathing rebuke of Attorney General Peter Neronha's social media posts in a scheduled court appearance on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

The feud between the state’s top prosecutor and a Superior Court judge over social media posts continues to escalate, with the dispute now headed to the disciplinary arm of the state’s highest court.

Rhode Island Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel Procaccini filed the complaint with the disciplinary board of the Rhode Island Supreme Court on Friday, formalizing his previously expressed concerns over Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha’s posts on X over alleged professional misconduct. Procaccini’s referral also moves the very public dispute to a more private setting, since the investigative panel conducts its reviews behind closed doors.

The two were originally scheduled to toe-to-toe in a hearing Friday morning in which Procaccini would decide whether to take further action over “troubling” posts Neronha made in the midst of a bench trial in November. That hearing never happened, with Procaccini opting to refer the matter to the disciplinary board instead. Neronha also didn’t show, sending Miriam Weizenbaum, Civil Division chief, on his behalf after citing “significant exposure” to COVID-19 while traveling earlier this week.

Despite Neronha’s absence, Procaccini took the occasion to offer a scathing rebuke of Neronha’s actions, which he criticized as “false,” “reckless,” and in clear violation of the court’s professional conduct rules for lawyers.

“This court will not justify or excuse false and disparaging attacks on the Superior Court or this court and further, it would be disrespectful to all the attorneys in this state who follow the rules each and every day,” Procaccini said. “Our profession, the many ethical lawyers who appear before the Superior Court every day and this court deserve better.”

Neronha’s social media posts angered a judge. Now he could be investigated for misconduct.
From left, Kathryn Sabitini, the Rhode Island Attorney General’s executive counsel and chief of policy, and Miriam Weizenbaum, Civil Division chief, appear in court on Attorney General Peter Neronha’s behalf on Friday, Dec. 8, 2023. (Nancy Lavin/Rhode Island Current)

The spat stems from a series of social media posts Neronha shared on Nov. 8 about a bench trial Procaccini was presiding over, but had not yet decided. 

This court will not justify or excuse false and disparaging attacks on the Superior Court or this court and further, it would be disrespectful to all the attorneys in this state who follow the rules each and every day.

– Rhode Island Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel Procaccini

Neronha’s office had brought misdemeanor charges against a Barrington oral surgeon for alleged racial attacks on his Muslim neighbor. During the judge’s review, Neronha posted a link to a Providence Journal story about a case and offered a policy critique of the state system that allows for bench trials without first consulting the prosecution. Neronha did not criticize Procaccini directly, but wrote, “when some judges never oversee a jury trial, it’s not a coincidence.”

Two days later, Procaccini acquitted the doctor, while also in a rare move ordered Neronha to show up in court to answer for his social media posts.

AG doubles down

Ahead of Friday’s hearing, Neronha’s office sought to head off the attack, defending his social media posts as First Amendment speech and part of his job requirements to inform and engage the public, according to the Nov. 30 response filed by his office.

Neronha’s social media posts angered a judge. Now he could be investigated for misconduct.
Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Neronha (Photo courtesy of Rhode Island Office of Attorney General)

Neronha also argued in the written response that his social media posts were not personal attacks, but policy statements backed up by statistics about prevalence of bench trials among Superior Court judges.

Procaccini sought to dismantle Neronha’s defense, citing his own statistics for the Superior Court and his own courtroom, including the nearly-identical conviction rates in jury and bench trials he presided over. Procaccini also refuted Neronha’s First Amendment claims, instead framing the issue not as protected speech but “blatant, false and reckless conduct” with clear violations of five clauses within the professional conduct code.

Shortly after Procaccini’s rebuke in court, Neronha again took to X, writing “I love this work and I will always speak up for victims of crime and the people of Rhode Island. Don’t like my words?  Refute them. Or go home.”

In a lengthy written statement sent via email, Neronha also doubled down on his freedom of speech defense, and rejected Procaccini’s claims of professional misconduct.

I have spoken out about a Rhode Island legal practice in Superior Court criminal trials that is unbalanced and prejudices the public’s interest in achieving justice for victims of crime,” Neronha said. “In speaking out against this practice, I have plainly offended Judge Procaccini, who evidently misinterpreted my public statements as personal criticism directed at him. He is wrong on that score, but even if he were right, are judges beyond criticism in our democracy? I think not.”

While Neronha admonished Procaccini for not allowing him to resolve the dispute informally, saying he had tried to do so “to no avail,” he also said he was prepared to take his argument to the Supreme Court.

He is wrong on that score, but even if he were right, are judges beyond criticism in our democracy? I think not.

– Attorney General Peter Neronha in response to Rhode Island Superior Court Associate Justice Daniel Procaccini’s action Friday morning

The high-profile spat is not the first time the attorney general has feuded with a state Superior Court judge. In 2006, then-Attorney General Patrick Lynch was held in contempt and fined by a state Superior Court judge for talking to reporters during a trial, though the contempt order and fines were later overturned by the Supreme Court.

Unlike the Lynch case, Procaccini isn’t actually deciding if Neronha ran afoul of conduct laws; he’s leaving that determination – and possible penalties – up the disciplinary board.

How often that happens is hard to tell, since the reviews by the 12-member investigative arm are private and confidential, said Michael Yelnosky, a Roger Williams University School of Law professor. Investigations are only revealed if the board finds probable cause of misconduct, which prompts a public hearing.

‘A war of two codes’

“There could very well be times an attorney general was being investigated by the disciplinary board but we didn’t know,” Yelnosky said.

While Procaccini’s complaint appears to add fuel to the fire of his fight with Neronha, it also can be seen as required by the state’s code of judicial conduct, which obligates judges to refer certain misconduct to the appropriate authority.

“We’ve got a war of two codes here,” Yelnosky said, referring to the separate codes governing attorneys and judges.

Yet, Yelnosky added, “The process could have been quieter. It could have been less visible to the public. No question.”