PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- When state Chief Justice Thomas F. Fay walked into a crowded courtroom here last month, he was not coming to preside. He was appearing to enter a plea to charges that he violated Rhode Island's ethics law.

Wearing a blue suit, Fay, 52, quietly pleaded not guilty to the accusation that he had awarded a plum arbitrator's post to a business partner. The state's highest-ranking legal officer then was asked to raise his right hand.

"Do you promise to keep the peace and be on good behavior?" he was asked.

"Yes," Fay murmured before slipping out a side door.

With that, public life in the nation's smallest state seemed to reach a new low, even by the standards of recent years.

"It's not a pleasant picture here," said Darrell West, an associate professor of political science at Brown University and director of the school's public-opinion research lab. "If you have one scandal or two, you can say it's idiosyncratic."

But not in Rhode Island, where corruption and abuse of power appear to have become all too common, even on the highest court. Fay's predecessor as chief justice resigned under fire, and Fay is the focus of a wider imbroglio involving the conduct of state government.

The situation has inspired dark humor with an edge:

Q. In Rhode Island, what do you call a man in a suit?

A. The defendant.

Q. How bad is the recession in Rhode Island?

A. So bad the mob had to lay a couple of judges off the payroll.

Long a stronghold of organized crime's Patriarca family, Rhode Island has witnessed an impressive series of allegations, revelations and convictions in the last decade involving:

Joseph Mollicone Jr., former president of Heritage Loan and Investment Co., who is serving a 30-year prison term for embezzling about $15 million in a scheme that crippled the state's banking system and left thousands of people without access to their money for many months.

Joseph "Joe B." Bevilaqua, who preceded Fay as state chief justice and stepped down in 1986 while facing impeachment. He left after the Providence Journal-Bulletin reported frequent out-of-court contacts between him and organized-crime figures.

John E. Fuyat, who resigned as a family court judge in 1989 after revelations that he had been soliciting bribes from lawyers, and Superior Court Judge Antonio S. Almeida, charged that year with taking kickbacks. Responding to those scandals, Chief Justice Fay promised to tighten ethics rules for judges.

Fernand St Germain (D), who chaired the House Banking Committee during the 1980s while the savings and loan scandal was developing. Voters tossed him out in 1988 after a Justice Department report cited "substantial evidence of serious and sustained misconduct" by St Germain, who had close ties to thrift-industry lobbyists. He then became a lobbyist for the thrifts.

Brian Sarault, former Pawtucket mayor serving a federal prison term for extorting thousands of dollars from a city contractor.

Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr., who was forced to resign as Providence mayor in 1984 after pleading no contest to charges that he assaulted a man who he thought was having an affair with his estranged wife.

Edward D. DiPrete (R), the former governor who, with some family members, allegedly made $2 million in one day in a land deal and then bestowed a state government job on the local official who had approved the deal.

Current Gov. Bruce G. Sundlun (D), an apparently honest politician who became embroiled in a personal scandal this year when a 17-year-old said Sundlun was her father. The governor, now married to his fourth wife, admitted that the child was the result of an affair in 1974, soon after his first marriage.

With this gallery as a backdrop, Fay's indictment was viewed widely as the ultimate indignity. But the criminal charges, all misdemeanors, do not exhaust complaints against him.

Fay and Matthew Smith, the court's top administrator, have been targets of a crusade by the Journal-Bulletin, which accuses them of running the judiciary as an overpaid patronage haven, replete with no-show jobs, bloated budgets and cronyism.

Fay and Smith are alumni of the heavily Democratic General Assembly, which appoints Supreme Court members. Fay was an obscure family court judge in 1986 when Bevilaqua's downfall created a sudden vacancy.

Smith was then speaker of the House and could play kingmaker; he selected Fay. Soon after his swearing-in, Fay named Smith court administrator, a post that pays more than $100,000 a year.

The Journal-Bulletin reported that Fay and Smith allegedly mishandled a secret account funded by bar-exam fees -- tapping it to pay for alcohol, a baseball outing to Fenway Park in Boston and a tuxedo rental for Smith. The articles prompted several law enforcement investigations, which continue.

Smith also has covered up alleged theft of public money by a court employee, the newspaper charged. Smith resigned last month and is awaiting the outcome of a grand jury probe.

Last week, a majority of House members called on Fay to resign, but he refused. Fay and Smith have denied wrongdoing and have stopped talking to reporters.

Several theories have been advanced about Rhode Island's woes in high places. One theory is that the state, with fewer than 1 million residents, is too small to be governed because all business is conducted as a series of personal favors.

"I think there is an explanation," Arlene Violet, former attorney general and current radio talk-show host, said in an interview. "It is a small state, so people tend to know people who are involved. Until recently, there's been a shrug-of-the-shoulder reaction to it."

Others disagree, citing similar small states -- such as Vermont and Delaware -- whose political climates are different. West pointed instead to "institutional arrangements that facilitate scandal," especially a state constitution that charges legislators with picking Supreme Court justices.

"Some of them have brought a legislative mentality to the court, meaning taking care of your friends and building a patronage system," West said. "In other states, you don't have that."

Another theory is that Rhode Island has been in the grip of one-party rule too long -- since the Great Depression.

"It is always unhealthy when a party remains in office continuously for more than a decade," said Steven D. Gold, director of the Center for the Study of the States at the State University of New York in Albany. He said Rhode Island also makes a big mistake by paying legislators only $5 a day, which may tempt some to seek money and favors.

Many political observers agree that the climate may be changing. They cited election of Republicans to three statewide positions last year, which West called "revolutionary" for Rhode Island.

West said Brown University polls consistently show broad public support for reforming judicial selection, and Violet said callers to her show say they have had enough.

The turning point, Violet said, was the banking crisis, which showed many Rhode Islanders that corruption is not a victimless crime. "People are realizing that the corruption is costing them," she said.