Women and Justice: Court: Supreme Court of Rhode Island

Domestic Case Law

Constitutional Right to Life Committee v. Cannon Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1976)

Abortion and reproductive health rights

A non-profit corporation filed a claim protesting the validity of a regulation requiring specified facilities, procedures, and personnel whenever a pregnancy is terminated within the geographical boundaries of Rhode Island, arguing that the regulations failed to consider the life of the unborn child. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island held that the regulation did not improperly disregard the life of the unborn child because, as a matter of constitutional law, the only interest that a state may assert in regulating abortion procedures prior to the time of a child’s viability is during the second trimester when the state may regulate abortion procedure to the extent that the regulation reasonably relates to the preservation and protection of maternal health.

State v. Ware Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1980)

Statutory rape or defilement

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island rejected the argument that the state’s criminal statute outlawing carnal knowledge of a girl under 16 years of age violated equal protection of the law, even though it created a classification based on sex by designating females as the only possible victims and subjecting only males to conviction under the statute. In rejecting the defendant’s argument, the court applied the rule that sex-based classifications that served important governmental objectives and were substantially related to the achievement of those objectives were not unconstitutional. The court cited the fact that the classification was substantially related to the important state’s interest in protecting female children “from the severe physical and psychological consequences of engaging in coitus before attaining the age of consent in the statute.” Therefore, the classification based on sex did not violate the constitution’s equal protection law.

Hamel v. Hamel Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1981)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

Petitioners, husband, and wife filed cross-petitions for legal separation rather than an absolute divorce where the matrimonial bonds are completely broken. The Family Court dismissed both petitions because the husband’s stated reason for seeking legal separation was “irreconcilable differences.” The text of the statute ordaining legal separation seemed to require that it be an interim measure pending the reconciliation of the parties. Legal separation because of irreconcilable differences therefore, on its face, seemed to be an inconsistent proposition. The issue on appeal was whether irreconcilable differences could be grounds for a merely legal separation rather than an absolute divorce. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island ruled that based on the history of legal separation and legislative intent, a party can seek legal separation based on irreconcilable differences without needing to show that there is a possibility of reconciliation. Statutory text that seemed to contradict this ruling by requiring a show of a possibility for reconciliation was precatory but not mandatory.

McMaugh v. State Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1992)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

A woman and her husband were convicted of murder, and the woman appealed her conviction, arguing that her husband’s severe abuse prevented her from fairly defending herself at trial. Evidence of the abuse was discovered one year after the completion of trial, when the woman and her husband were placed in separate prisons. In reviewing the trial court’s denial of post-conviction relief, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island assessed whether the trial court considered if the additional evidence was newly discovered, material, and outcome determinative, and then whether such evidence, if appropriately before the court, warranted post-conviction relief. Upon hearing the newly discovered evidence, the court found that the pattern of extreme physical and mental abuse by her husband prevented the woman from assisting her attorney in presenting a reasonable defense at trial—rather, the evidence supported that the woman was suffering from battered women’s syndrome, which caused her, contrary to her own interests, to support her husband’s story at trial. Moreover, the evidence was and could only have been discovered after the wife was in prison and more removed from the husband’s domination and influence. The court found that this evidence warranted post-conviction relief, vacating the case and remanding it to the lower court for a new trial.

Sammataro v. Sammataro Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1993)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

The General Master of Family Court granted custody of a child to the defendant because the plaintiff received public assistance. The issue on appeal was whether receiving public assistance was a legitimate criterion for the denial of child custody. In reversing the Family Court’s ruling for the defendant, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island reiterated the rule that any custody determinations must be based on the best interests of the child and delineated a non-exclusive test to determine the best interest of the child. The factors include, but are not limited to: (i) the wishes of the child’s parent or parents regarding the child’s custody; (ii) the reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of sufficient intelligence, understanding and experience to express a preference; (iii) the interaction and interrelationship of the child with the child’s parent or parents, the child’s siblings, and any other person who may significantly affect the child’s best interest; (iv) the child’s adjustment to the child’s home, school and community; (v) the mental and physical health of all individuals involved; (vi) the stability of the child’s home environment; (vii) the moral fitness of the child’s parents; and (viii) the willingness and ability of each parent to facilitate a close and continuous parent-child relationship between the child and the other parent.

Jacques v. State Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1995)

Sexual violence and rape

The defendant appealed a 12-year prison sentence, arguing that his sentence was excessive given that there was no evidence he used violent force or penile penetration. However, the court held that the defendant failed to show the sentence imposed on him by the trial court was excessive or that any serious disparity existed between his sentence and any other sentence imposed for similar convictions, citing the fact that the Supreme Court found he violated Rhode Island’s sexual assault statute even though he did not commit penile penetration or use violent force (“the type of penetration is unimportant under the sexual-assault statute . . . The fact that only digital penetration occurred does not lessen [the victim’s] fear and humiliation.”).

Rhode Island Depositors Economic Protection Corp. v. Brown Supreme Court of Rhode Island (1995)

Gender discrimination

In this case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court set out the standard of scrutiny with which to view the constitutionality of laws that discriminate based on gender: “If an act employs a gender-based classification, it is subject to a middle-tier scrutiny in which the classification must be substantially related to the achievement of the statutory objective.”

Dupre v. Dupre Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2004)

Divorce and dissolution of marriage

In this case, the Rhode Island Supreme Court held that a parent seeking to relocate out of the country with children in his or her custody need not make a showing that his or her reasons for relocation are “compelling.” Rather, the court cited the “time-honored axiom that the primary consideration and paramount concern in all matters relating to custody is the best interests of the child.” In determining the child’s best interests, requiring a parent to demonstrate that the reason for moving was compelling would overly burden a parent’s ability to relocate for legitimate reasons. Accordingly, the court held that the family court had incorrectly applied a “compelling reason” test in denying a mother’s motion to relocate with her children, failing to consider the children’s best interests. 

DeCamp v. Dollar Tree Stores, Inc. Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2005)

Employment discrimination

A female employee sued her employer and supervisor for sex discrimination in violation of the Rhode Island Fair Employment Practices Act and the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act. In deciding the case, the court set out a three-step approach for determining liability. First, the employee must establish a prima facie case of gender discrimination. In a gender discrimination analysis based upon a termination, the establishment of a prima facie case requires the plaintiff to show that: “(1) she is a member of a protected class; (2) she was performing her job at a level that rules out the possibility that she was fired for inadequate job performance; (3) she suffered an adverse job action by her employer; and (4) her employer sought a replacement for her with roughly equivalent qualifications.” Once this “not especially onerous” burden has been met, the employer must offer a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for the adverse employment action. Finally, the employee is required to convince the judge or jury that that the legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason proffered by the employer is merely a pretext for her termination.

State v. Urena Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2006)

Domestic and intimate partner violence

The defendant appealed a conviction of manslaughter after stabbing her boyfriend to death, arguing that the state did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she did not act in self-defense based on evidence that she suffered from battered women’s syndrome. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island clarified the burden of proof in establishing battered women’s syndrome as a defense, stating that the “defendant [is] required to prove the existence of [battered women’s syndrome] as an affirmative defense by a fair preponderance of the evidence.” Accordingly, the lower court correctly instructed the jury that the burden of proof was on the defendant, not the state, to show that she was suffering from the effects of battered women’s syndrome, and the conviction at the lower court was upheld.

State v. Rivera Supreme Court of Rhode Island (2010)

Sexual violence and rape, Statutory rape or defilement

A bus driver was convicted of sexually assaulting three developmentally disabled women, two of whom were passengers on the defendant’s bus route. On appeal, the defendant challenged his conviction on several grounds, one of which was that the trial court erred in precluding him from questioning the victim’s mother about a previous incident that suggested the victim was promiscuous. The court held that the defendant was not entitled to question the victim’s mother about the incident, because the defendant did not notify the trial justice beforehand of his intention to probe into the victim’s conduct or otherwise seek a hearing with the court about the admissibility of such evidence.