The "tough little bunch": the Rhode Island Supreme Court's strong judicial integration and commitment to judicial restraint.

AuthorTripoli, Christina M.

In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, "judges must be constantly aware that their role, while important, is limited. They do not have a commission to solve society's problems, as they see them, but simply to decide cases before them according to the rule of law." (2) In recognition of this philosophy, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island consistently adheres to principles of judicial restraint.

Indeed, the court itself has noted that the judiciary's "duty [is] to determine the law, not to make the law." (3) "To do otherwise, even if based on sound policy and the best of intentions, would be to substitute our will for that of a body democratically elected by the citizens of this state and to overplay our proper role in the theater of Rhode Island government." (4)

Because of the justices' commitment to judicial restraint, the Rhode Island Supreme Court maintains a strongly integrated system, evidenced by the low number of dissents filed by each justice of the court. (5) Indeed, the justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court apply their state constitution as it is written, not as they or any other unelected official wishes it were written. Therefore, they also have a fairly low reversal rate, as their goal is to make sure the lower court applied the law correctly, and not to seek to remedy any social harms that any such laws may have inflicted.

State supreme courts are influential institutions. They exercise final authority over some of the most important cases in the United States and pronounce and shape legal doctrine by issuing thousands of opinions a year. In short, they are some of the most significant institutions for the lives of United States citizens, especially the lives of the citizens of the state in which they sit. (6)

As the court of last resort in the State of Rhode Island, the Rhode Island Supreme Court renders decisions that impact almost every area of life for its citizens. As a result, the cases that come before the Rhode Island Supreme Court may seem neither "great" nor "hard." (7) But "[g]reat cases like hard cases make bad law." (8) In the words of one late Rhode Island Supreme Court justice, "[w]e just don't get jazzy constitutional law cases." (9) While the cases may involve basic constitutional principles, "[t]hey are [often] of concern only to the immediate parties, and are rarely vehicles for broader questions." (10) The decisions of the Rhode Island Supreme Court therefore often go without notice and rarely receive national attention.

The last study of the voting trends of the Rhode Island Supreme Court was conducted by Edward N. Beiser in 1973. (11) Perhaps potential successors in interest have concluded that another study of the voting patterns of the court would be insignificant--perhaps because the court has too small of a caseload or because the court does not decide groundbreaking cases of which legal scholars and judges ought to take consideration. Indeed, when many think of Rhode Island, touristy seaside towns along the coast of the Ocean State and glimpses into the lives of America's high society may be more prevalent than reflections about jurisprudence and "significant" court decisions. Because the court rarely issues earth-shattering decisions, one could mistakenly conclude that the Rhode Island State Supreme Court seldom decides any noteworthy cases.

Seeking to label a case as "significant" or "important," however, is quite arbitrary. As with any court study, some important cases will inevitably go unstudied. Furthermore, the nature of sampling state court cases is in and of itself "biased." (12) First, cases that interpret state statutes and laws often go unnoticed as they may have little effect upon national jurisprudence. (13) In their respective state, however, they make up a large portion of the court's docket and hold great importance for the residents of that state and for practitioners before the court. Second, it may take time for a case to become "significant" at a national level. (14) Therefore, the cases that follow in this study are by no means exhaustive of those cases that may have actually been significant for the residents of Rhode Island and have "left [their] mark on the jurisprudence of the state and the nation." (15) Instead, they are a sampling of those cases that have a strong tendency to support the proposition that Rhode Island adheres to judicial restraint and has a strongly integrated political system.

This study will be organized in the following manner: Part I discusses the methodology used in this particular state high court study. Part II provides an introduction and background information of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, including its history and current structure and the tenure of the judges and the appointment process. Part III discusses the judicial restraint employed by federal and state courts, and that of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Part IV presents current voting trends and statistics of the court, analyzes cases from 2005-2009 in which a justice filed a dissent, and examines both the particular voting patterns of the different justices and the frequency of dissents and reversals. Part V portrays how judicial restraint has affected several of the court's leading "significant" cases. Part VI offers some remarks in conclusion.

In 1977, Edward N. Beiser of Brown University did a complete study of the then current Rhode Island Supreme Court. (16) Beiser concluded that justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court almost never disagree with each other. (17) Beiser proposed that the five justices of the Rhode Island Supreme Court acted and worked together as a tightly-knit and strongly integrated political system, is Beiser explained that, among other things, by keeping their personal opinions and political trends from creeping into their decisions, the justices were able to maintain this strong system. (19) In addition, they simply, but strictly, adhered to the wishes of the legislature. (20) Furthermore, they placed great faith in the decisions of the trier of fact, their only standard of review being to make sure that the lower court used and applied the correct law. And, where a case involved a federal issue, the Court always resorted to the United States Constitution. (21)

One commentator has opined that "[t]he question of whether, and under what circumstances, it is legitimate for state courts to reach conclusions under their state constitutions that are more protective of rights than United States Supreme Court decisions is one of the most important questions of American constitutional federalism." (22) Since Beiser's study, some have argued for more vigorous state constitutionalism in the Rhode Island Supreme Court's approach to its review of cases involving both federal and state claims that involve "analogous, but distinct, provisions of the federal and state constitutions," (23) proposing the following:

The court should determine state constitutional claims before federal ones when both are raised, and decline to reach the federal constitutional issue when the state constitution affords the relief requested. Even if the court elects to continue to address federal constitutional claims first, when the federal Constitution does not provide relief and a state constitutional claim has been raised, the court must vigorously explore the state constitution to determine if it is, or if it should be, more protective of the particular right at issue, and whether it can supply the relief requested by the litigant. (24) Indeed, the result of Rhode Island's fall back on the U.S. Constitution has perhaps been "to reduce the Rhode Island Declaration of Rights to a 'mere row of shadows' alongside the federal Bill of Rights, and to effectively cede to the United States Supreme Court the Rhode Island Supreme Court's own sovereign authority to determine state constitutional meaning." (25)

On the other hand, some commentators have expressed disagreement with Rhode Island's absolute deference to the legislature, and have advocated for stronger judicial activism, particularly when individual rights are violated by the legislative enactments. With respect to Bandoni v. State, (26) a case in which the Rhode Island Supreme Court refused to create a cause of action to entitle victims to collect monetary damages from state officials where the officials failed to notify the victims of their constitutional rights, one commentator expressed the following:

On May 4, 1776 the colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations threw off the yoke of British repression represented by George III. Seventy and some-odd-years later the State of Rhode Island adopted its Constitution. It amazes one to think in this day and age that that which was wrestled from George III is now by judicial custom and tradition periodically handed back to his predecessor, Charles II, by right of his colonial charter, whenever the state constitution appears not to address a given issue. Rhode Island rejected the monarch and the British Parliament, and rightfully so. To hold that such a fractious and generally pernicious body as the General Assembly should retain such imperial, and sometimes oppressive plenary power is itself an insult to that cherished document, the Rhode Island Constitution, and to its framers, past and present. (27) Yet it has also been noted that "[w]hen faced with only a state constitutional claim the court has shown itself quite willing and capable of vigorously examining the sources and history, as well as competing strands of constitutional philosophy, relevant to the constitutional provision at issue." (28) The purpose of this study is not to call into question the decisions of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, but merely to objectively present such information and to provide a greater potential understanding of the jurisprudence and voting trends of a court that often goes without notice, and to show that the court's caseload perhaps contains...

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