Rhode Island. Courts (1647 - present) | State Archives Catalog
The first era: 1636 to 1647 Roger Williams settled Providence in 1636, and the town’s first judicial system relied on arbitration to resolve disputes. Dissatisfied petitioners could appeal arbitration decisions in a “trial” before a general town meeting. The town meeting functioned at all levels of government during this period, including judicial matters. Settlements followed in Portsmouth, Newport and Warwick, rounding out the four original towns of the new colony. Each established its own laws and methods for adjudicating them. Portsmouth and Newport elected a judge as their highest government official. Elders were elected in Portsmouth to assist the judge, but in all towns the officials ultimately were accountable to the general town meeting.
The second era: 1647 to 1663 Under a charter obtained by Roger Williams in 1644, the four original towns united to standardize certain governmental and legal practices among the settlements. By 1647, they established a code of laws and a Constitution based largely on English precedents. These were among the most detailed in 17th century Colonial America. They included a remarkably advanced “bill of rights,” which scholars today say were even more advanced and liberal than the Magna Carta of England. Under the new Constitution, a president and four assistants, one from each town, comprised the general officers of the new colonial government. These same officials were the judges that made up the General Court of Trials, the precursor of today’s Rhode Island court system. While the towns were permitted to have their own courts to deal with local matters, the General Court of Trials was empowered to hear the most serious crimes and issues, as well as appeals from the local courts. The General Court of Trials held sessions in each town as necessary. This system existed until King Charles II issued a new Royal Charter in 1663.
The third era: 1663 to 1842 Under the Royal Charter of 1663, a governor, deputy governor and ten assistants were elected to fulfill the dual roles of General Assembly members and judges on the General Court of Trials. The latter became the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery. The court met exclusively in Newport, which at the time was Rhode Island’s preeminent town. In 1729, the General Assembly divided the colony into three counties – Newport, Providence and Kings. Courts of Common Pleas were established to hear civil matters and General Sessions of the Peace were established to hear criminal cases. Judges were elected from the counties they served. Appeals from these county courts were heard in Superior Court, which, in effect, was the General Assembly. As populations grew, it became impractical for the Superior Court to sit only in Newport. In 1747, the General Assembly selected five judges – a chief and four associates – to hold court twice a year in each Rhode Island county. In 1790, the General Assembly passed a law preventing political office holders from simultaneously serving as judges. The awkward name of the Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize and General Gaol Delivery remained until 1798, when it was changed to the Supreme Judicial Court.
The fourth era: 1842 to present This period began with passage of a new “people’s constitution.” Under this document, full and final adjudicatory power, which had been the domain of the General Assembly, was established as a court function. The new Constitution, for the first time, also clearly divided state government into executive, legislative and judicial branches. Until then, the General Assembly had exercised almost unlimited power, unencumbered by the safeguards of checks and balances that exist today. The General Assembly not only enacted laws, established courts and elected judges, but it also had the power to review, revise or reverse any judicial opinion or decision. In short, until 1842, the concept of an independent and co-equal judicial branch of government was nonexistent in Rhode Island. In 1843, the Supreme Judicial Court’s name was shortened once again to simply the Supreme Court. In 1856, a major blow for judicial independence was struck in the historic decision in Taylor v. Place. With that decision, all judicial power was “vested in one supreme court, and in such inferior courts as the general assembly may, from time to time, ordain and establish.” From that decision forward, the General Assembly could not lawfully review, revise or reverse judicial decisions. The Supreme Court during this period consisted of six Justices – including the Chief Justice – and later seven Justices, whose work was split into the Appellate Division and the Common Pleas Division. In 1905, Rhode Island’s comprehensive Court and Practice Act created the Superior Court for general trial jurisdiction and it recast the Supreme Court as a five-member appellate court, which it remains today. Rhode Island’s District Court had its roots in 1886, when the General Assembly divided the state into 12 judicial districts and appointed part-time judges to decide certain limited civil and criminal cases without juries in each of those districts. Family Court was established in 1944 as Rhode Island Juvenile Court. It dealt exclusively with matters relating to minors. In 1961, however, the authority of this court was extended to include divorce and all other domestic matters. To reflect this broader mission, its name was changed to the Rhode Island Family Court. As part of a sweeping reform of the workers’ compensation system in 1990, the General Assembly created the Worker’s Compensation Court to hear and decide disputes. In 1999, the legislature revamped the state’s traffic court system, creating the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and moving jurisdiction from the Executive Branch to the Judicial Branch. While the courts have enjoyed judicial independence as the third branch of government, they did not have true independence on administrative matters until 2004. Before then, Rhode Island’s Governor was able to modify the Judiciary’s budget before passing it along to the General Assembly, the appropriating authority. Legislation passed in 2004 ensured that the Judiciary could determine policy and spending for court priorities within its appropriated amount.