The "Tough Little Bunch": The Rhode Island Supreme Court's Strong Judicial Integration and Commitment to Judicial Restraint

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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. …