PROVIDENCE — Former Attorney General Dennis J. Roberts II died suddenly on Wednesday, October 20, 2021 at home. He was 80 years old and had served three consecutive terms as Rhode Island’s Attorney General, from 1979 to 1985, and had served more than 50 years as a lawyer in private practice.
He was a compassionate advocate of accessible health care and was instrumental in the establishment of the RI Group Health Association, the state’s first and largest HMO. In private practice he represented the RI State Nurses Association and the RI Association of Nurse Anesthetists among many others. He appeared frequently before the state Public Utilities Commission to moderate rates and oppose increases by electricity and natural gas suppliers. One of his administrative hallmarks was his promotion of women in leadership roles within the Attorney General’s department. With his encouragement, a number of women from his senior staff went on to distinguished careers in the RI judiciary. This determination won him the 2018 Florence K. Murray Award from the RI Bar Association, the only man ever to win it. And where he saw wrongdoing, he pursued it. His office brought in a guilty verdict in the widely watched first trial of Claus von Bulow, accused of the attempted murder of his wife Sunny.
As an attorney with a wide ranging practice, he was a member of the Rhode Island and New York Bars as well as the Bars of the US District Court, the US Court of Appeals and the United States Supreme Court. His scores of clients ranged from the NFL and Procter & Gamble to the Airline Pilots Association and even Microsoft, although his personal disdain for the digital world was legendary. For many years he served as Chair of RI Board of Bar Examiners, diligently assessing the legal knowledge of young law school graduates. For twelve years he worked to combat commercial injustices as attorney for the RI Consumers’ Council. Throughout his long career, he applied his legal skills to defending the rights and opportunities of everyday Rhode Islanders.
Denny was born on May 30, 1941 in Providence, the son of Thomas H. Roberts and Florence (McCabe) Roberts. His father served as a judge on the RI Superior Court and eventually rose to become Chief Justice of the RI Supreme Court from 1966 to 1976. His mother was a teacher at the Henry Barnard School. His uncle Dennis J. Roberts, for whom he was named, was Mayor of Providence from 1941 to 1951 and Governor of Rhode Island from 1951 to 1959. With that powerful legacy, it was perhaps inevitable that Denny would gravitate to the law and public service. He had a passion for history and the principles of law which he pursued first at Fordham University in the Bronx (A.B. 1963) and at Boston College Law School (L.L.B. 1966), where he was chosen as Editor of the Law Review. While devoting himself to the rights of all, no matter their origin or their credo, his own Catholic faith was a profound part of his daily life.
He is survived by his wife Sherry (Alden) Roberts of Providence, his daughter Jane Roberts of Chicago, his three beloved grandchildren Liam, Shannon and Cian, and his brother Tom Roberts of Cranston. He was predeceased by his son Thomas H. Roberts II.
A Mass of Christian Burial was celebrated on Monday, Oct. 25 at St. Sebastian’s Church, Cole Avenue, Providence. Burial was in St. Francis Cemetery in Pawtucket. Donations in Denny’s memory to St. Sebastian’s Church, 67 Cole Avenue, Providence, RI 02906, would be deeply appreciated.