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Rhode Island Court Records

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How Does the Rhode Island Supreme Court Work?

The Rhode Island Supreme Court is the highest court in the state. The Supreme Court exercises supervisory and administrative authority over other state courts and sets rules for the Rhode Island judicial system. It is a last resort court and has the final say on all questions of law and equity in the state. 

The Rhode Island Supreme Court also has supervisory powers over the state’s judicial budget. It also has a responsibility to the Rhode Island state government’s executive and legislative branches, especially on matters related to legislation’s constitutionality. Also, the Supreme Court has the authority to issue prerogative writs.

The Supreme Court has authority over the entire judicial system, including the state bar. This responsibility requires the court to regulate admission into the bar and handle disciplinary matters for erring attorneys. For this purpose, the Supreme Court runs a Disciplinary Board to protect the public and maintain the judiciary’s integrity. To encourage fairness and transparency, the Board comprises 12 members, including eight attorneys and four persons from the general public.

The Rhode Island Supreme Court encourages the general public to reach out with complaints about any of the state’s attorneys and judges. The court investigates all complaints through the investigative arm of the Disciplinary Board.

The Supreme Court has appellate jurisdiction over all matters in the state. Interested parties may appeal decisions to the Supreme Court from any of the state’s lower courts. The Supreme Court follows a strict set of rules that determine the appellate procedure when it reviews appealed cases. However, the court may suspend these rules if it finds good cause to do so. This usually happens in cases where the court needs to expedite its decision. Any of the parties to a case heard by the Supreme Court may also apply to suspend the rules. However, note that the court is not obliged to grant the application.

In addition to its appellate jurisdiction, the Supreme Court’s purview extends to final revisory powers on all questions of law, which sets precedence for all other courts. Also, the court’s jurisdiction may be expanded as much as prescribed by law. Generally, the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the law, or a section of the law, is regarded as the proper interpretation.  

The Rhode Island Supreme Court comprises four Associate Justices and one Chief Justice. Becoming a Supreme Court justice begins with a nomination from the Judicial Nominating Commission. The Commission publicly recommends names to the state governor, who then decides based on the recommendation. However, an appointed justice must be approved by both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

In the first full week of every month, except for summer months, the Supreme Court usually sits with all five justices to hear oral arguments. Note that before the hearing, each side in the case is expected to have submitted properly written briefs to the Supreme Court. Justices will also review the written briefs before the hearing case.

During the oral argument, each side has 30 minutes to present its position in the case. However, some cases with fewer legal issues are argued by each side for a maximum of ten minutes. After the oral arguments, the Supreme Court Justices begin deciding the case based on the written briefs, and the arguments put forward during the hearing. This process usually entails intensive research in addition to the discussions. On average, the deliberation and research process may take between four and six weeks.

After the deliberations, one of the Justices is randomly assigned to write the Supreme Court’s opinion. If the assigned Justice is in the minority, the Supreme Court will reassign the opinion writing to a Justice in the majority. Dissenting Justices also draft dissenting opinions that are circulated privately among Justices, along with the initial opinion. Justices then review the opinions until a final draft is completed. The decision may then be filed with the Supreme Court’s Clerk, distributed to the attorneys involved in the case, and eventually made public.

Note that while the hearing is public, the deliberations may happen in private conferences, which are sometimes closed even to court staff court. Persons interested in visiting the Supreme Court for a hearing may use the information below:

Rhode Island Supreme Court

Licht Judicial Complex

Seventh Floor

250 Benefit Street

Providence, RI 02903

Phone: (401) 222–3272

Like federal judges, each Rhode Island Justice enjoys a lifetime tenure and is not required to retire at any age. Justices may only be removed by impeachment, following a complaint of improper behavior or official misconduct.

The Rhode Island Judiciary has a Commission on Judicial Tenure and Discipline, the arm responsible for handling complaints against Justices. The Commission must review and investigate filed complaints and allegations where Justices are accused of violating any part of the Code of Judicial Conduct. Note that apart from willful misconduct, complaints may include any event that impedes the Justice’s optimum performance.

Typically, allegations include the following:

  • Repeated failure to carry out judicial duties
  • Physical or mental disability that seriously interferes and will continue to interfere with judicial performance
  • Disabling addiction to any substance, including alcohol, narcotics, or drugs
  • Any other conduct that brings serious disrepute to the judicial office

Serious allegations against a Justice usually result in a formal hearing before the Commission. Following the hearing, the Commission members will decide if the charges are sustained and may report this finding to the Supreme Court. The report will contain specifics of the allegations, the Commission’s findings, and a recommendation to reprimand, retire, suspend, or remove the Justice. Note that the Commission may only send a report to the Supreme Court if nine members who were present throughout the process agree to sustain the charges. If the Commission recommends removal, the Senate must convict the Justice by trial, following an impeachment vote by the House of Representatives.

The Rhode Island Judiciary provides public access to Supreme Court opinions and orders, and case summaries. The judiciary’s website also provides a case docket search where interested persons may find court records and search for hearings for a specified date range. Requestors may use any of these provisions or directly contact the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

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