Rhode Island Supreme Court

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The Rhode Island Supreme Court, founded in 1747, is the court of last resort in the state of Rhode Island. It consists of a chief justice and four justices.

Rhode Island Supreme Court rulings on ballot measures

Year Type Ballot measure Legal issue Plaintiff Defendant Court ruling Impact
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In 1747, the Rhode Island General Assembly authorized the creation in each county of a Superior Court of Judicature, Court of Assize, and General Gaol Delivery, consisting of one chief justice and four associates, all serving one year terms. Most of the judges during the 18th century were laymen, merchants or farmers and did not possess formal legal training, and therefore the court did not explicitly follow British common law. Parties, however, could still appeal to either the British monarch, English courts or the General Assembly until independence in 1776.[1]

In 1747 the Assembly appointed the first Chief Justice, Gideon Cowell, who was not a lawyer and the second, Joshua Babcock, a Yale educated physician. Stephen Hopkins served as Chief Justice from 1747 to 1755 and was the first trained lawyer to serve in this position. [2]

In 1798, the Assembly renamed the Superior Court "The Supreme Judicial Court," and in 1843, "The Supreme Court." Prior to 1994, the General Assembly sitting with both houses chose the justices without the governor's consent. In 1994 after a wave of corruption scandals, citizens amended the Rhode Island Constitution to allow the governor to choose Supreme Court nominees from a list of candidates approved by a nonpartisan nominating committee. Both houses of the General Assembly still must approve any nominees.

Current members

The current Justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court are:

  • Chief Justice Frank J. Williams (Appointed: 1995, Chief Justice: 2001)
  • Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg (Appointed: 1997)
  • Justice Francis X. Flaherty (Appointed: 2003)
  • Justice Paul A. Suttell (Appointed: 2003)
  • Justice William P. Robinson III (Appointed: 2004)

Prominent Rhode Island Supreme Court Justices

  • Peleg Arnold, Delegate to the Continental Congress
  • Stephen Hopkins, Signatory of the Declaration of Independence, Governor of Rhode Island
  • David Howell, Delegate to the Continental Congress, federalist leader, U.S. District Judge
  • William West, 1787-1789, American Revolution general, Deputy Governor, anti-federalist rebellion leader


  • Rhode Island Supreme Court
  • Irving Berdine Richman, Rhode Island: A Study in Separatism, (Houghton, Mifflic & Co, Rhode Island: 1907), 191.[3]
  • Thomas Durfee, Gleanings from the Judicial History of Rhode Island, (Providence: Sidney S. Rider, 1883), p. 164
  • Amasa M. Eaton, The Development of the Judicial System in Rhode Island, Yale Law Journal14 (Jan. 1905), 148-170.
  • John T. Farrell, The Early History of Rhode Island’s Court System, Rhode Island History 9 (July 1950), 65-71; 9 (Oct. 1950), 103-117; 10 (Jan. 1951), 14-25
  • Link to article describing various RI Court primary sources
  • Gail I. Winson, "Researching the Laws of the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations: From Lively Experiment to Statehood" (Roger Williams School of Law)Article link.