Sheriffs Cannot Be Laid Off In Rhode Island

The Division of Sheriffs is a subdivision of the Rhode Island State Department of Administration. On November 15, 2007, the director of the Department laid off two sheriffs and notified two others that their positions were being eliminated. The basis for the cuts was the “severe financial crisis” affecting the State of Rhode Island.

The Sheriffs sued, contending that they could not be laid off under Rhode Island law. The Rhode Island Supreme Court agreed. The statute governing the appointment of sheriffs provides that the director of the Department of Administration “shall also appoint to each of the counties with the consent of the governor the sheriffs and chief deputy sheriffs to ten-year terms.” The only exception to the ten-year term is that a sheriff may be discharged for just cause. In the eyes of the Court, the statutory language was unambiguous: “It is clear that the sheriffs were all appointed pursuant to the State statute and all received ten-year terms. There is no ambiguity in the use of the phrase ‘ten-year term.’ To probe further into the meaning of the phrase ‘ten-year term’ would be to violate our tenets of statutory construction. Read literally, we conclude that no other meaning can be given to the phrase ‘ten-year term’ and that this statutory provision requires that the sheriffs be allowed to serve a ten-year term.

“The Legislature could have given the sheriffs an indefinite term of employment or vested them with tenure in their positions; instead, it provided the sheriffs with the specific term of ten years, protecting them in their employment for that particular length of time.”

Castelli v. Carcieri, 961 A.2d 277 (R.I. 2008).

This article appears in the February 2009 issue