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Rhode Island. Courts (1647-)

 Organization

Dates

  • Existence: 1647-

Historical Note

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.

Found in 38 Collections and/or Records:

6th District Court records

 Series — Box: 6th District Court records, 1914, 1922, 1925
Identifier: 1636-499
Overview Includes warrants (1914), court records relating toR.I. v. George Steinhart (1922), and R.I. v. James Hanley Brewing Co. (1925).
Dates: 1914, 1922, 1925

Annual Report of the Juvenile Court of the State of Rhode Island, 1944-1950, 1953-1960

 Sub-Series — Folder: 10. Annual Report of the Juvenile Court of the State of Rhode Island 1944-1960
Identifier: 1636-680
Dates: 1944-1950, 1953-1960

Annual Report of the Workers' Compensation Court, 1990-1991

 Sub-Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 1636-1083; 1636-894

Commission to Repair Washington County Court House accounts

 Item — Folder: Commission to Repair Washington County Court House accounts, 1870
Identifier: C#00609
Overview Bills and receipts for various expenditures for the repair of the Washington County Court House that were approved by the General Assembly.
Dates: January 6, 1870-March 6, 1870

Coroner Inquests, 1903-1930

 Series — Multiple Containers

Court Clerks' returns

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00075
Overview This series consists of listings of the costs, fines, and executions from circuit court cases in Rhode Island, 1747-1832.
Dates: 1747-1932

Court of Magistrates annual report

 Item — Volume: Court of Magistrates annual report, 1850
Identifier: C#00495
Overview Information concerning cases brought before the Court of Magistrates includes: names of complainant and respondent, offense, judgment, court fees, witness fees, counsel fees, disposition, amount paid by the accused, totals of various categories, signature of the clerk. This information was presented to the General Assembly in the form of an annual report.
Dates: 1850

Court Records at the RI State Archives

 Digital Record
Identifier: DO 277
Dates: Event: 1710-1930

Court Returns

 Series — Box: Court Returns, 1933-1973
Identifier: C#00885
Overview To record information about cases handled by the District and Superior Courts in a given year. "Annual Report" of the Courts of RI. Includes: name of the court, number of cases handled by the court, disposition of cases handled by the court, number of cases pending at the beginning and end of the year, signature of the Clerk of the Court, year of filing.
Dates: 1933-1973

Docket of the Court of Common Pleas

 Item — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 1994-15
Content Description Covers for the years 1870-1872 were signed by Thomas C. Greene.
Dates: 1752-1867, 1870-1872, 1875-1876, 1881

Equity Court judgement dockets

 Series — Volume: Equity Court judgement dockets, 1741-1743
Identifier: C#00494
Overview Function: To record the decision of the judges in cases brought before the Equity Court. Includes: Name of plaintiffs and defendants, decision of the court, amount of damages, amount of court costs, date of court session, names of Judges present, docket number of the cases.
Dates: September 8, 1741-December 31, 1743

Equity Courts case files

 Sub-Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00371
Overview Function: To record information acted upon by the courts concerning individual cases. Contents: Groups of documents related to individual cases heard before the RI Equity Court. Documents include: copies of the case, plea and answer of defendant, depositions, deeds, verdicts, warrants, powers of attorney, and other documents relative to the adjudication of the individual case.
Dates: March 22, 1741-April 14, 1744

Judiciary reports

 Series
Identifier: 1636-98
Dates: 1880-1991

Law Cases (File Papers), Vols. 1-10

 Digital Record
Identifier: C#00366
Dates: 1725-1741

Legislative Report of the Family Court of Rhode Island: Annual Report, 1963, 1966-1973

 Sub-Series — Folder: Legislative Report of the Family Court of Rhode Island: Annual Report, 1972
Identifier: 1636-425; 1636-51
Overview Legislative Report of the Family Court of the State of Rhode Island Annual Report: Pursuant to Title 8, Chapter 10, of the General Laws, State of Rhode Island As Amended - The Family Court Act.
Dates: 1963, 1966-1973

Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court Relative to the Election of Members of the City Council of the City of Providence (Given April 11, 1882), 1882

 Item — Folder: 46. Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court Relative to the Election of Members of the City Council of the City of Providence (Given April 11, 1882)
Identifier: 1636-229.1

Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court Relative to the Election of Members of the City Council of the City of Providence (Given November 16, 1882), 1882

 Item — Folder: 46. Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court Relative to the Election of Members of the City Council of the City of Providence (Given November 16, 1882)
Identifier: 1636-229.2

Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court, Relative to the Legality of Plurality Elections Given, February 9, 1887

 Item — Folder: 46. Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court, Relative to the Legality of Plurality Elections Given, February 9, 1887
Identifier: 1636-229.3

Opinion of the Judges of the Supreme Court Relative to the Right of a Husband to Vote on His Wife's Real Estate, March 30, 1878

 Item — Folder: 17 Supreme Court decision - The right of a Husband to Vote on His Wif'e Real Estate 1878
Identifier: 1636-942.2

Opinion of the Supreme Court Given to the Senate of Rhode Island, February 4, 1909

 Item — Folder: 5. Opinion of the Justices of the Supreme Court 1898, 1908, 1909 (1636-580)
Identifier: 1636-580.3
Scope and Contents "Requesting the written opinion of the Honorable Judges of the Supreme Court upon the division for submission separately to the electors of certain amendments to the constitution of the State proposed in a resolution passed at the January session, A.D. 1908, of the General Assembly.
Dates: February 4, 1909

Opinion of the Supreme Court on the Constitutionality of Chapter 454 of Public Laws, Given at the Request of Governor Littlefield, January A.D., 1883

 Item — Folder: 46. Opinion of the Supreme Court on the Constitutionality of Chapter 454 of Public Laws, Given at the Request of Governor Littlefield, January A.D., 1883
Identifier: 1636-229.5

Opinion of the Supreme Court on the Power of the General Assembly of Rhode Island to Call a Constitutional Convention Made to the Senate at its January Session, 1883

 Item — Folder: 46. Opinion of the Supreme Court on the Power of the General Assembly of Rhode Island to Call a Constitutional Convention Made to the Senate at its January Session, 1883
Identifier: 1636-229.4

Opinions of the Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island to the House of Representative, 1953-1954

 Item — Folder: 16 Opinion of the Supreme Court to the House of Representatives 1953-1954
Identifier: 1636-942.1

Opinions of the Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island to the Senate, 1954

 Item — Folder: 19. Opinions of the Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island to the Senate, 1954 (1636-1196)
Identifier: 1636-1196

Oration Delivered at the Dedication of the Providence County Court House

 Item — Folder: 13. Oration Delivered at the Dedication of the Providence County Court House, 1879 (1636-1220)
Identifier: 1636-1220
Scope and Contents Oration Delivered at the Dedication of the Providence County Court House, December 18, 1877, by the Hon. Thomas Durfee, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the State of Rhode Island.
Dates: 1877