PROVIDENCE — Retired Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr., the leader of the Rhode Island Superior Court for 18 years and a judge for a total of 35 years, passed away early Friday at his home in Wakefield. He was 78.
Rodgers was the youngest judge in modern Rhode Island history when he was appointed to the District Court bench at the age of 32 by Gov. Philip W. Noel in 1974. Two years later, he was appointed an associate justice of the Superior Court. After 15 years on the Superior Court, Judge Rodgers was tapped by Gov. Bruce Sundlun in 1991 to be presiding justice, the court’s chief judge.
Rodgers headed that court until his retirement in 2009. He continued to serve the Superior Court as a retired justice. During his leadership, he organized the nation’s first gun calendar, an initiative that was not only successful in achieving increased jail time for offenders but also dramatically reduced disposition time of gun cases from about 17 months to just over 4 months.
“We are all deeply saddened by the news of Joe Rodgers’ passing,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell. “He had a remarkable career, serving for over 35 years in both the District and Superior courts, then continuing his service as a retired justice. He was responsible for many innovations. He was an inspiration to all judges and will be greatly missed by the entire Judiciary.”
“Joe was devoted to the trial court, its judges, its personnel, its legal community and the public it served,” said Presiding Justice Alice B. Gibney, who succeeded Rodgers in 2009. “He was generous with his time and countless people have sought his counsel over the years. He was, truly, a wise man. Until the end, he was blessed with lucidity and a remarkable memory. His community of family, friends and colleagues mourn his passing. There was no better judge. There was no better friend.”
Rodgers took steps to reduce delays of civil trials in Providence County from about five years in 1990 to less than two years by the time he retired, cutting the backlog in half. Under his tenure, the Superior Court instituted an annual Settlement Week in December during which volunteer lawyers helped mediate civil disputes ripe for resolution.
He created the successful drug calendar for adult offenders, with an emphasis on improving participants’ lives in a timely and effective manner through substance abuse treatment, social services, and justice interventions, rather than jail.
He instituted the Superior Court’s business calendar to track and resolve issues affecting jobs and businesses before those companies sought bankruptcy or receivership protection.
He reduced jury service from two weeks to two days or one trial to make the civic responsibility more convenient and enjoyable. He developed the Superior Court’s judicial evaluation program and spearheaded the revision of the court’s sentencing benchmarks and rules of civil and criminal procedure.
After graduating from Providence College, Rodgers earned his law degree at Boston University School of Law. He served in the Rhode Island Senate from 1967 to 1974, serving as chairman of the Judiciary Committee and vice chairman of the Labor Committee before being appointed to the bench. He chaired the Judiciary’s Commission of Judicial Tenure & Discipline from 1980 to 1986.
He was an instructor of law at Roger Williams University and taught classes in law at Providence College and the Community College of Rhode Island.
He is survived by his wife, the former Donna Boudreau; his children, attorney Joseph F. Rodgers III, Superior Court Associate Justice Kristin E. Rodgers, and Edward Rodgers, deputy director of community affairs for juvenile services in the Family Court; and two grandchildren.
Reactions from state politicians:
Lt. Gov. Daniel J. McKee: "Justice Rodgers dedicated his life to public service here in Rhode Island. Over the years, both in and out of the courtroom, he earned a reputation for being patient, fair and wise. His moral clarity and unwavering respect for the law will leave a long-lasting impact on those he taught, mentored and served. I extend my deepest condolences to his family and loved ones. He will be deeply missed, but his legacy will live on for years to come."
U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: “As a lawyer and as Attorney General I appeared often before Justice Rodgers. Indeed as Presiding Justice, he by statute had to approve our wiretap applications. He was always wise and practical, he moved his cases along fairly, he had no trouble making hard decisions, and he usually had a good-natured twinkle in his eye. There was a lot to admire and emulate about Joe Rodgers. I will miss him, and send my love and regards to his family.”
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed: “Justice Rodgers was a man of conscious, character, and courage who inspired us all with his integrity and commitment to public service. He understood that being a good judge is more than just enforcing the law. It’s about seeking justice. He brought kindness and humility to the bench and an innate sense of fairness. He was a model public servant and someone who never forgot his roots. He had a profound impact on Rhode Island and the people he served. While we are deeply saddened by his passing, we remain grateful for his many accomplishments and contributions.”
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline: “I am deeply saddened by the death of my friend, former Superior Court Presiding Justice Joseph F. Rodgers Jr. A lifelong Rhode Islander, Joseph Rodgers dedicated his time on this earth to upholding the law and ensuring justice for the residents of our state. I was honored to know him and to see firsthand the fairness and compassion with which he served. His influence on our state, and the dignity of his example, will be deeply missed. My thoughts and prayers are with his daughter, Superior Court Justice Kristin E. Rodgers, and all his loved ones during this difficult time.”