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RG 054. Judiciary (Courts)

 Record Group
Identifier: RG 054
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 19 Collections and/or Records:

6th District Court records

 Series — Box 6th District Court records, 1914, 1922, 1925
Identifier: 1636-499

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

Court Clerks' returns

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00075

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

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 Returns

 Series — Box Court Returns, 1933-1973
Identifier: C#00885

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

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

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

Identifier: 1636-98
Dates: 1880-1991

Justice's Court records

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00527

The Justice's Courts records contain dockets of cases heard at a particular session and minutes of action taken in indivdual cases. Information includes name of justice, plaintiff, and defendant, date and location of hearing, alleged offense, decision of the court, fines or penalties levied.

Dates: 1770-1867

Legislative Report of the Family Court of the State of Rhode Island

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: 1636-425-1636-753
Dates: Majority of material found in 1963-1973

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

Probate records

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00121

The Probate records consist of four volumes that contain the file number of estate, name of deceased, name of executor or administrator. One volume contains loose papers related to the estate of F.N. Barlow.

Dates: 1871-1890

Providence Court House plat map

Identifier: 1636-O-50

Plat map (Plat # 26 1/2) showing the road from the Providence Court House to the House of John Mann. Detail includes buildings and owners. Created by: Mr. J.J.S. Slater.

Dates: c. 1810-1815

Rhode Island law cases (file papers)

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00366

Groups of documents related to individual cases heard before various colonial courts. Documents include: copies of the case, plea and answer of defendant, depositions, verdicts, warrants, powers of a Attorney, deeds and other documents necessary for the adjudication of the case. Cases are arranged chronologically by session of the court.

Dates: 1725-1741

Superior Court records

Identifier: 1636-352
Dates: 1866-1930

Supreme Court docket

 Series — Multiple Containers
Identifier: C#00356-C#00625

Docket of the Supreme Court for the County of Providence, [term of court and year]. Type of action, docket number, abbreviations of plaintiff's law firm, plaintiff's name, defendant name, abbreviations of defendant'slaw firm. Some volumes also include names of Justices of the State Supreme Court or calender of judicial terms for the year.

Dates: March 1, 1872-April 30, 1893

Supreme Court of Probate meeting minutes

 Series — Volume 1-2. Supreme Court of Probate meeting minutes, 1755-1813
Identifier: C#00497

Function: To record the actions of the General Assembly acting as the Supreme court of Probate. Includes: Minutes of the General Assembly acting as the Supreme court of Probate. Information includes: date and place of session, names of parties present, name of deceased, decisions of lower courts regarding the case, and the decision of the Supreme Court of Probate. In the same volume with letters from the Governor (C# 00499) and Orders of the Council of War (C#00498).

Dates: June 1, 1755-October 31, 1813

Supreme Court opinions

Identifier: 64 64.01
Dates: 1878-1954

Two Hundred and Fiftieth Anniversary on the Planting of Providence: An Oration by Thomas Durfee

 Item — Folder 250th Anniversary of the Planting of Providence, 1887
Identifier: 1636-4005
Dates: 1887