Johnston judge swap follows political split

Posted 1/19/23

“Judge Jackie” is no longer on the bench.

In Johnston, your robe may hang by a thread if your father holds the wrong sign on Primary Day.

“I’ve got just one …

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Johnston judge swap follows political split


“Judge Jackie” is no longer on the bench.

In Johnston, your robe may hang by a thread if your father holds the wrong sign on Primary Day.

“I’ve got just one question,” said the judge’s father, Joe Grasso. Earlier this week, he asked repeatedly: “What did we do wrong? What did I do wrong?”

Attorney Jacqueline M. Grasso served as Johnston’s Chief Municipal Court Judge for a decade, following a similar decade-long judgeship in Bristol. In December, she discovered she no longer had the support of incoming Johnston Mayor Joseph M. Polisena Jr. (then still mayor-elect), and would likely be replaced by the town’s Housing Authority executive director.

The decision to remove Grasso from the bench triggered the lone “nay” vote during the new mayor’s Inauguration Night ceremony on Jan. 9.

During the packed-house event, Johnston’s Town Council briefly convened for reorganization and a series of votes on new appointments.

Town Council Member Robert J. Civetti cast the “nay” vote to appoint aRusso as “Judge of the Johnston Municipal Court.” Civetti said his vote was not against aRusso, but against removing Grasso, a jurist with decades of “unblemished” legal experience in the Ocean State and beyond, to Massachusetts and federal courts.

“Per Charter I believe the appointment of the judges in town is the responsibility of the Town Council,” Civetti said via text message on Jan. 6, three days before inauguration night. “Judge Grasso has been a judge I believe for over 20 years in the state of Rhode Island and to the best of my knowledge has an unblemished record. Therefore I'm not quite sure why the Town Council would take any action other than to reinstate her to the position. She has done an exemplary job and I see no reason to do anything other than to reappoint her to the position that she has served so well.”

Despite Civetti’s lone “nay” vote, aRusso’s appointment was confirmed by Town Council (4-1).

The New Mayor

When asked why he supported replacing Judge Grasso with David aRusso, after supporting her past two appointments, Polisena Jr.  replied:

“I don’t have the authority to appoint judges. With that being said, David aRusso is extremely qualified and Johnston is lucky to have him as a judge. As a former police officer, housing authority director and attorney, he has extensive criminal justice experience, knowledge about the town itself and legal experience to do an exceptional job dealing with residents and listening to their perspectives.”

However, according to Grasso, Polisena Jr. sent her a text message on Dec. 19 requesting a meeting and the pair met on Dec. 21. During the meeting, Polisena Jr. told her what she already knew; that she would not be reappointed.

“After I was informed I met with her as a professional courtesy,” Polisena Jr. said.

When asked who informed him, he replied: “It was a collective decision made by the majority of the council.”

December Meeting

Jacqueline Grasso, often called “Judge Jackie” by co-workers at the courthouse, family and friends, had been expecting an appointment to her sixth two-year term. Technically, her current term runs through February (however, since aRusso has been sworn-in, Grasso is no longer Johnston’s chief judge).

As Town Council Vice-President, Polisena Jr. had supported her appointment to her last two terms, Grasso said, adding that she was informed of the move by her incoming replacement, aRusso, a longtime family friend.

Soon after aRusso broke the news to Grasso in her Atwood Avenue law office, she received a text message from Polisena Jr. (on Dec. 19). Then she met with the mayor-elect two days later.

The brief meeting provided little clarity, according to Grasso.

Grasso said she told Polisena Jr. that she already knew he wouldn’t be supporting her re-appointment. She said she was disappointed to hear it from aRusso.

“I already know, and I don’t appreciate the way I found out,” she recalled telling the then-mayor-elect.

According to Grasso, Polisena Jr. said there was a problem with court hours. She said that problem had been fixed. And that was about it.

The now-former judge provided the following statement:

“I understand that there’s been a change in the appointment of chief municipal court judge,” Jacqueline Grasso recalled from her meeting with Polisena Jr. “I would have appreciated finding out the appropriate way. However I was called into a meeting with the mayor-elect, who by the way does not appoint me, and was told that I wasn’t being reappointed. I expressed my interest in serving the town another two more years. I sent a letter of intent to be reappointed to all the Town Council people. I’m appointed by the Town Council in accordance with the enabling legislation. And I advised the mayor-elect and his chief-of-staff that I’ll leave it up to the council. And if I have the votes, fine. If I don’t have the votes, life goes on and I wish the best for David aRusso.”

Civetti said the process behind Grasso’s replacement was problematic.

“Why did he bring her in and tell her he’s not reappointing her?” Civetti asked. “And why are my colleagues saying I need to do what the mayor wants me to do? And that’s when I … say, why have a town council? If our town council isn’t going to perform the roles and responsibilities we’re put there to do, why be there?”

Signs of Trouble

Searching for the reason behind her removal from the bench, Grasso and her father have been able to piece together a small town political conspiracy, stemming from 2022’s soggy Primary Day election.

Forbidden from politicking by the jurist’s code of ethics, Grasso said she’d never personally campaign for an elected official, but her father has been involved with Johnston politics for years. He collected signatures for Polisena Jr.’s runs for Town Council. He belongs to the town’s 55-member Johnston Democratic Town Committee (JDTC).

And on Primary Day, Grasso stood outside, in the rain, holding signs for candidates endorsed by the JDTC.

“What 86-year-old disabled veteran did you find at any of the polling places, with a sign in the rain, but me?” Grasso asked. “With his (Polisena Jr.’s) sign, along with others. I had James Diossa’s sign, and District 5 (Civetti) … What did I do wrong? All endorsed candidates. This is what they want to sell to the people, with them four rubber stamps he’s got there? Nah, I’m done. And they take it out on her. I don’t want her involved.”

By “rubber stamps,” Grasso meant the other four Town Council members: President Robert V. Russo, newly named Vice-President Lauren A. Garzone, Linda Folcarelli, and newly sworn-in member Alfred T. Carnevale.

Former Friends

In 2016, now-former mayor Joseph M. Polisena visited Grasso’s new office at 1310 Atwood Ave. He congratulated Grasso and posed for a photograph, which was published in the Johnston Sun Rise.

Grasso has been now been practicing law for more than 25 years in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and federal courts. She practices general law, and maintained her private practice while working Wednesdays as Johnston’s Chief Municipal Court Judge.

Grasso also previously served as an adjunct professor at the UMass-Dartmouth School of Law.

Then-mayor Joseph Polisena, the new mayor’s father, and now former Town Councilman Richard DelFino III, the son of the former JDTC Chairman and Johnston Court Administrator Richard DelFino Jr., showed up at Grasso’s practice to “deliver the town’s greetings” and pose for photos.

Grasso said her relationship with former Mayor Polisena, and his son, newly inaugurated Polisena Jr., had been solid for years; until the fall of 2022.

The Vote

During the Inauguration Night council meeting, Town Clerk Vincent Baccari called the meeting to order and called the vote to reorganize. Russo was unanimously re-elected as council president. Garzone was unanimously elected vice-president. And then the duties of the president were passed from the Town Clerk, back to Russo, and then handed off to Garzone (so Russo could make a motion to approve aRusso’s appointment as municipal court judge).

“Since I have been in office I believe we are now on our fifth municipal judge,” Town Council President Robert V. Russo said Wednesday, in a written statement. “All of our judges have been fantastic including Judge Grasso. Unlike Superior and District court judgeships, which enjoy a lifetime tenure, municipal court judges serve at the pleasure of the respective city or town councils and there is no inherent guarantee of longevity. I think the council’s new judge selection, David aRusso, makes a good fit to this position. He is a lifelong resident of Johnston, a former captain on the Johnston police department, an attorney and former Executive Director of the Johnston Housing Authority. Clearly his experience will allow him to bring a good perspective to those that appear before him seeking fairness in having their legal issue adjudicated.”

Garzone seconded Russo’s motion. Council voted 4-1. No discussion occurred in public session.

Two more votes were made, to appoint Frank Manni as Auxiliary Judge of the Johnston Municipal Court and Priscilla Facha DiMaio as Probate Judge of the Johnston Probate Court. Those two appointments passed unanimously.

Following the votes, Polisena Jr. swore in all three judges.

Small Town Native

Jacqueline Grasso, a Johnston native, had relocated to Bristol several decades ago. She served around 10 years on the bench in Bristol, and then moved back home to live with her father after her mother died.

The position was open in Johnston, she interviewed and was appointed. She said court was running smoothly, and she was a bit blindsided by the decision to remove her from the bench.

She has a booming law practice, however, and said she’ll be fine.

Grasso said she still considers aRusso a family friend and bears no ill-will toward Johnston’s new judge.

“I wish him the best,” Grasso said.

“It’s normal practice, when somebody’s position’s coming up for renewal, the council members … we do get a letter from that individual asking to be reappointed,” Civetti said. “I received a letter from Judge Grasso. I received a letter from the Probate Judge, Judge DiMaio. That’s normal practice.”

As the New Year neared, Grasso attempted to reach out to members of Town Council. She said one member ignored her call, and another said she wouldn’t be supporting her reappointment.

The Law

Civetti pointed to state legislation, approved in 1964, which created a “Police Court in Johnston.”

“To me, it’s all about the legislation,” Civetti said earlier this week. “My background … I’m an auditor. I’m all about transparency, following the rules.”

According to Enabling Statute 1964 Chapter 120 of Rhode Island Public Law (RIPL), “the Town Council appoints judge(s),” not the mayor. The judge’s term should also begin Feb. 1, according to statute.

“My opposition against the appointment of David aRusso … wasn’t against David aRusso, it was against replacing our current judge,” Civetti said. “You have a judge sitting as a judge, for over 20 years in the state of Rhode Island, unblemished record, I wanted somebody on the council to give me an explanation of why are we replacing the judge. My opinion, if somebody’s doing their job, they’re doing it well, you have no issues, why replace them? And I would even say the same … for any town directors, whether you have a change of administration or not.  If that person’s doing their job, they’re representing the town to the best of their ability and doing what they’re supposed to, then why do you replace them? So obviously, I wasn’t in the loop of what was happening, and that we were going to replace the sitting judge. But when I found out about it, obviously I was in total opposition.”

On the Outs

Civetti said the Grasso’s had a major liability; their fairly recent association with Civetti.

Joe Grasso held one of Civetti’s campaign signs on Primary Election day, outside of several town polling places. He also held a sign for Gov. Dan McKee.

Both Civetti and McKee were endorsed by the Johnston Democratic Town Committee (JDTC). Joe Grasso, a member of the town committee, said that every member of the committee had been instructed to campaign only for endorsed candidates.

“That’s what I did,” Grasso said. “What did I do wrong?” He asked again.

Grasso said he was approached by Polisena Jr. as he held a sign for McKee. The pair exchanged words, and Grasso said he’s been on the outside ever since. There was also an issue with campaign yard signs, according to Joe Grasso.

At one point, he had been displaying a large campaign sign for Polisena Jr. outside his daughter’s Atwood Avenue law practice. Then suddenly the sign disappeared. Polisena Jr.’s campaign told him they needed the sign for a different location.

Grasso said he almost called police when the sign first went missing. Then when he heard the campaign took it back, he was further confused by the situation.

Former Neighbors

Grasso has known aRusso since he was a kid. He used to live next door to Polisena Jr. He says he’d sometimes plow the younger Polisena’s driveway during winter storms. He insists he played by the rules, and only supported endorsed candidates, but the new mayoral administration has decided to penalize his family because he didn’t fall completely in line.

The Polisenas and McKee were once close political allies. The Johnston Democratic Town Committee endorsed McKee early in the race. Polisena Jr. worked in the governor’s office. Then, his employment ended. Sources dispute the nature of Polisena Jr.’s exit from his statehouse post. Polisena Jr. has said on the record that he resigned to focus on his private practice.

Former mayor Polisena has publicly stated McKee’s policies became “too left-wing,” so he withdrew his support. McKee has not commented publicly on the matter.

Shortly after the JDTC endorsed McKee, the governor/mayors relationship dissolved, but the endorsement remained in place.

McKee did not attend Polisena Jr.’s Inauguration Night ceremony. Instead, his primary opponent, Helena Foulkes, attended the event, and was seated with town, state and federal elected officials.

Joe Grasso said one of his neighbors, in District 5, also displayed a Civetti lawn sign, and he later discovered the sign was attributed to him (though Grasso does not dispute he supported Civetti’s campaign, he insists he had nothing to do with his neighbor’s lawn sign).

The riff between the Polisena’s and McKee, and the solar dispute between the Polisena’s and Civetti, both occurred after the JDTC made their endorsements.

Guilt by Association

Civetti, a baseball coach in town for decades, forged a relationship with the Grasso family at the town’s baseball diamonds, and at church on Sunday mornings. Joe Grasso has also long been very active in the town’s youth sports; he used to drive aRusso to hockey practice.

Grasso and Civetti say they’ve known each other around two years.

Civetti said he feels badly that his loose association with the Grasso family has possibly cost Jacqueline Grasso her judge position. The position came with a $15,000 annual stipend and required at least one full day of court per week, depending on the number of cases before the court.

Why has Civetti been politically black-listed in Johnston? He says his falling out with the Polisena’s has a one-word answer: “solar” (see accompanying story, “Shedding sunlight on Johnston’s solar projects”).

“As for signs etc. I guess you would have to ask my colleagues on the Town Council why they feel it necessary to replace a judge with a great track record and unblemished record,” Civetti said.

Town Council members Folcarelli, Garzone and Carnevale did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

“I’ve yet to hear from any of my colleagues why we’d replace Judge Grasso, other than, what the administration wanted,” Civetti said on Monday. “And again, by state legislation, it has nothing to do with the administration. Unfortunately I’ve heard from one of my colleagues in the past that their job is to do whatever the mayor tells them to do … Why we even have a Town Council is beyond me.”


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