For informational purposes only. Always consult an attorney to obtain competent legal advice.
Rhode Island State Court System
District Court - The Rhode Island District Court is a court of "general jurisdiction" in which a variety of legal matters are heard. Civil claims of damages up to $10,000 can be heard, including all Small Claims actions. For criminal cases, only misdemeanor violations (crimes that have a maximum penalty of 1 year in prison) are heard in the District Court. Administrative Appeals, such as appeals of decisions by the Dept. of Labor and Training as to Unemployment Benefits, are also heard in the District Court. Since the District Court does not conduct jury trials, all appeals of criminal cases and most appeals of civil cases can be removed to the Superior Court for a new trial. The District Court plays a major function in resolving the vast bulk of legal claims, both civil and criminal, in Rhode Island
Superior Court - This is the main trial court in Rhode Island and only court that conducts jury trials. The Superior Court conducts trials of all criminal cases involving felony charges and all civil cases in which the amount claimed exceeds $10,000. In addition, this court conducts new trials of criminal and civil claims that have been appealed from the District Court, as well as probate court appeals, The decisions of both civil and criminal trials in the Superior Court are recorded and published, which provides a great record of law that attorneys can use to research legal issues. All appeals of Superior Court trials are filed in the Rhode Island Supreme Court.
Rhode Island Supreme Court - This is the highest court in Rhode Island and the only appellate court of general jurisdiction in Rhode Island (many states also have at least one intermediate appeals court level). Appeals from the Superior Court, Family Court and Workers' Compensation Commission can be heard here. Other claims in which there is no automatic right of appeal may also be brought to the Supreme Court, which the court may or may not decide to hear. Since the Supreme Court is an appellate court, no trials are conducted and no evidence is admitted. The Supreme Court looks only to the record of the trial or hearing from the lower court.
Workers Compensation Commission - This is a court of limited jurisdiction and hears only matters involving work place injuries. Since this court has its own Appeallate Division, appeals of trials are also heard here.
Family Court - This is a state court of limited jurisdiction, hearing only issues involving families, such as divorce, child custody and support, and matters involving juviniles.
Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal - This court deals with traffic violations and also has its own Appellate Division. Some traffic violations are heard at the local level in municipal court, but appeals of those decisions may be taken to the RITT.
Probate and Municipal Courts
Probate Court - Unlike most states, Rhode Island's probate courts are municipal, not state-wide, courts. Thus, there is a probate court for each of the 39 cities and towns in Rhode Island. These courts are part-time courts which meet certain days and times, usually at the city or town hall, and are presided over by part-time judges who are also practising attorneys. The probate courts have jurisdiction over matters involving the estates of decedents, guardianships of living persons, and name changes. Appeals are to the Superior Court.
Municipal Courts - Each city and town has its own municipal court which mainly oversees local matters, including minimum housing viloations and traffic violations on local streets. These courts and the judges are part-time and usually meet in the town or city hall or public safety complex.
Federal Court System
The federal courts mainly hear matters involving federal law, class actions, and legal controversies between persons or corporations from different states.
U. S. District Court - This is the federal trial court of general jurisdiction. It hears matters involving violations of federal law, either civil or criminal, and controversies over $75,000 between persons or corporations of different states. Each U.S. District Court has jurisdiction over matters that are within its district. Every part of the U.S. and its territories are covered by one of the U.S. District Courts. In Rhode Island, there is one U.S. District Court which covers the whole state. Massachusetts, on the other hand, has two U.S. District Courts, one seated in Springfield serving the western portion of the state, and the other seated in Boston which serves the eastern portion. Altogether, there are 94 U.S. District Courts.
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals - This is the main federal appeals court and hears mainly appeals from civil and criminal cases from the U.S. District Courts that are within its circuit. There are only 11 circuits in the entire USA. Rhode Island is part of the First Circuit, which hears appeals from all U.S. District Courts within its circuit, which includes all of New England except Vermont and Connecticut as well as Peurto Rico. Interpretations of federal law, including the U.S. Constitution, by any U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is binding upon all U.S. District Courts within that circuit, unless that decision is later overturned or modified by the U.S. Supreme Court. (There is also a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, seated in Washington D.C., which mainly decides cases involving patent law.)
U.S. Supreme Court - This court hears mostly cases that it chooses to hear. Most of its decisions interpret the U.S. Constitution or federal law. Thus, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court are the highest law of the land. However, this court will only concern itself with state laws when those laws violate federal law or the U.S. Constitution. Any person or company that is unsatisfied with a decision from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals may ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision. However, since that party already had an appeal, the request to the U.S. Supreme Court is discretionary; and as a practical matter, the the U.S. Supreme Court declines to hear the vast majority of cases brought before it. When it does choose to hear a case, it is usually to clarify federal law in cases in which the U.S. Circuit Courts of Appeal have rendered differing interpretations. U.S. Supreme Court decisions thus have have a far-reaching impact.
Bankruptcy Court - This is a federal court which only has jurisdiction over bankruptcies of persons or legal entities within each district within the U.S. District Court system. Appeals to decisions of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court can proceed to the U.S. District Court, U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and to the U.S. Supreme Court.