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The Office of Law Revision, under the auspices of the Joint Committee on Legislative Services, is pleased to make available all the changes to the laws of the State of Rhode Island brought about through the efforts of the General Assembly's legislative session.



A History of the Laws of the State of
Rhode Island

A Guide to the Law Revision Office Legislative Session Lists

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse for its violation."

This comment was appropriately placed on the bottom of the title page of the 1750 edition of the Rhode Island Acts, Resolves and Reports. That 1750 edition was the very first bound edition of the laws of Rhode Island that were passed by the General Assembly. Since that first compilation, the laws of the state have been reorganized on numerous occasions to change with the times and to accommodate the needs of the people they govern.

Early History of the Stateís Laws

Throughout Rhode Islandís history many different documents, resolutions and digests have governed the land. The first such document was the Royal Charter of 1663 granted by King Charles II. This charter bestowed rights and privileges so extensive that it served as the primary document to our state government for one hundred eighty years, long after the colony severed its ties with England.

The Royal Charter called for a body of "Assistants and such of the freemen of the said company...who shall be...elected...by the major part of the freemen...shall have a general meeting or assembly, [and]...shall be called the General Assembly." This Charter was the official inception of the lawmaking body of the State of Rhode Island. In fact, the General Assembly had been meeting since 1649 when it first convened in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. At that meeting an initial code of laws was established and adopted; the "anchor" was designated to serve as the official Seal of the State. It was the Royal Charter, however, that formally established the Assembly and its purpose -- to be the official lawmaking body and voice for the State and its people.

Since the Royal Charterís call for a governing body of elected officials, the General Assembly has proposed and passed laws, called for studies and reports, conducted censuses, and recognized the accomplishments of citizens through resolutions. The actions of the General Assembly were passed and enforced; however, the organizational structure was virtually nonexistent. There was no formal order or indexing used for referencing purposes, and the bills passed remained at the old State House. Today these bills reside at the State Archives building on Westminster Street in Providence.

In the year 1750, with the advent of the innovative printing press making its way to Rhode Island, it was decided that it would be beneficial to produce a bound collection of the legislative actions of the General Assembly. The 1750-1755 edition of the Rhode Island Acts, Resolves and Reports was the first volume that made available the text of all enacted legislation in a single publication. This edition was followed by subsequent editions every two or three years.

The January, 1798, edition of Rhode Island Acts, Resolves and Reports called for "...a digest of Laws, as reported by the committee appointed to revise the Laws of the State, and amended by the General Assembly." As a result, the Public Laws of Rhode Island of 1798 were published. This edition was the first to combine all of the present laws of the state from previous editions of the Rhode Island Acts and Resolves, which constituted statewide acts, excluding resolutions and reports. This volume was reenacted to update the laws based upon changes made by the General Assembly in 1822, 1844, 1857 and 1872. The public laws were the first step towards making available the laws of the state in one comprehensive volume.

In the year 1842, Rhode Island made another important addition to its law books. The Constitution of the State of Rhode Island, also known as the "Peopleís Constitution," was ratified on November 23rd of that year. This document supplanted the Royal Charter of 1663 as the primary law of the land. The State Constitution outlined many freedoms and restrictions that were mentioned in the United States Constitution, including certain additions that pertained exclusively to Rhode Island, its leaders and its citizens. An important facet of the Constitution is the right of cities and towns to have a Home Rule Charter, added by a constitutional amendment in 1951. This document further outlines local regulations for cities and towns and gives them permission to enact regulations without the permission of the General Assembly. Thirty cities and towns in Rhode Island presently have Home Rule Charters.

In the year 1896, the State of Rhode Island published a volume entitled the Rhode Island General Laws. This compendious account of the stateís statutes replaced the public laws as its primary legal text. In addition to the General Laws, the Rhode Island Acts and Resolves recorded the legislative proceedings of each session and was published approximately every two years.

The general laws were republished and updated with new legislation in 1909, 1923, 1938 and in 1956. The reenactment of 1956 completely changed the manner in which the general laws were published and organized (R.I.G.L., Ch. 43-4). The 1956 reenactment codified the laws of the state by subject category. In place of a single voluminous publication, the laws were divided into eight volumes and organized alphabetically by subject. This was the last time that the full battery of the general laws was reenacted. Today when a law is passed, which affects a certain general law, the added, deleted, or amended text would be published as part of a pocket supplement appended to the back of each volume. Each year, when the supplement becomes particularly cumbersome and much of the text in the main volume becomes outdated, the single volume, not the entire set, is reenacted incorporating the contemporaneous language into the new volume (R.I.G.L., Sec. 43-4-18).

Until the year 1971, all of the passed statutes were published in biannual editions of the Rhode Island Acts and Resolves. In that same year a familiar title reappeared in publication. The Rhode Island Public Laws were published once again; however, this time they garnished a new purpose. This volume contained all legislation passed at each General Assembly session, save resolutions and acts of a local or private nature. In addition, the Rhode Island Acts and Resolves were published to contain what was not included in the public laws. Prior to this change, all of the acts that were not resolutions or acts of a local or private nature were still called public laws but were contained in the Acts and Resolves volumes.

Current Structure of the Stateís Laws

The laws of the State of Rhode Island have undergone extensive changes throughout the history of the land which they govern. While an understanding of the history of these laws is important, it is of equal importance to understand the system as it exists today.

There are three publications which contain statutes passed annually by the General Assembly.
They are the:

  • Rhode Island Public Laws,
  • Rhode Island General Laws,
  • Rhode Island Acts and Resolves.

Public Laws

The Public Laws of the state of Rhode Island are published annually and, with two exceptions, consist of all acts passed by the general assembly during the previous legislative session. Excluded from the public laws are resolutions and acts of a local and private nature which apply only to a single person, organization or community. These enactments are compiled and published separately in an annual volume entitled, "Acts and Resolves."

While all acts passed by the general assembly are considered to be public laws, with the exclusion of the resolutions and acts of a local or private nature, only those enactments that apply to the citizens of the state of Rhode Island are incorporated into the general laws of the state.

The public law volumes serve many purposes. They chart the evolution of a law by providing not only its legislative intent, but also a history of changes to that law. A knowledge and understanding of both is essential to the drafting of new legislation.

Equally important is that the public laws serve as a means of conflict resolution when two or more laws are in fundamental disagreement. The ability to chronologically trace the changes of a law provide a mechanism to reconcile any discrepancies between conflicting legislation.

The public laws of the state of Rhode Island serve as a quick and readily accessible reference guide in determining how the state's laws have been amended over time in addition to serving as an accurate and official journal of the accomplishments by the general assembly for every legislative session.

When a public law is enacted it has been approved by a majority of the House and Senate. Subsequently, it is signed into law either by the Governor, or the public law is allowed to become effective without the Governorís signature; or the Governorís veto may be overridden by three-fifths of the general assembly members present and voting in each of the House and Senate chambers (R.I. Const., Art. VI, Sec. 2; Art. IX, Sec. 2). When a bill becomes a law, it is given a chapter number which corresponds with the sequential order as it was enacted during the session (R.I.G.L., Sec. 43-2-1) . Public laws are statutes that:

  • add, repeal, or amend titles, chapters, sections and subsections of general laws,
    (R.I. Const., Art. IV, Sec. 2)
  • add, repeal, or amend titles, sections and subsections of prior public laws,
    (R.I. Const., Art. XIV, Sec. 2)
  • give a particular city or town permission for certain actions,
    (R.I. Const., Art. XIII, Sec. 4)
  • permit certain municipal actions not included under a Home Rule Charter; and
    (R.I. Const., Art. XIII, Sec. 4)
  • concern fiscal appropriations, including the state budget and city and town projects.
    (R.I.G.L., Ch. 35-3; R.I. Const., Art. VI, Sec. 11)



General Laws

From the public laws the general laws were born. General laws are a codified compilation of each successive edition of the public laws arranged alphabetically into titles. The general laws initially consisted of eight volumes in 1956; however, additional volumes have been added to the initial volumes, such as in the case of volumes 4, 4A, 4B, 4C and 4D, making a total of 28 volumes of the current General Laws of Rhode Island.

The primary distinction that separates general laws from public laws is that while public laws include all legislation, except for resolutions and local and private acts, the general laws are a collection of laws that are of statewide consequence. Legislative acts that affect a particular city or town remain public laws. The organization of both is also different. While public laws are organized and numbered by year and order of passage, general laws are organized in alphabetical order by the subject that they regulate. It is important to remember that while all general laws are public laws, not all public laws are general laws.



Resolutions are a type of bill that is passed by the General Assembly.Resolutions generally are a formal expression of an opinion, intention, or decision of the General Assembly, but usually do not have the formal force of law.


There are three basic forms of Resolutions: Simple Resolutions, Concurrent Resolutions and Joint Resolutions.


Simple Resolutions.A resolution introduced and passed only by the legislative body where the bill was originated.

Concurrent Resolution.A resolution passed by one house and agreed to by the other house.This type of resolution expresses the legislatureís opinion, intention, or decision on a particular subject but generally does not have the force of law.

Joint Resolution.A legislative resolution passed by both legislative bodies, usually for the purpose of appropriating funds or pertaining to state finances.These resolutions have the force of law and are subject to the Governorís veto.This type of resolution is passed only upon the Governorís signature (or failure to sign) or veto override.


All public resolutions passed by the General Assembly session are printed in the official ďRhode Island Acts and Resolves.Ē


Examples of Simple and Concurrent Resolutions include:


Extending congratulations and condolences;


Xxxxx; and



Examples of Joint Resolutions include that:


The appropriation of funds for claims less than one thousand dollars ($1,000.00);

Xxxxxxxxx; and


Local or Private Acts

The final type of statute passed by the General Assembly is the Local or Private Act. Local acts must be passed by both chambers and approved either by the Governor, become effective without the Governorís signature, or become effective upon the legislatureís override of the Governorís veto (R.I. Const. Arts. VI, Secs., 2, 9). Every edition of the Rhode Island Acts and Resolves contains any local or private acts passed in the previous General Assembly session. A local or private act:

  1. relates to a certain city or town,
  2. relates to an individualís pension or retirement,
  3. pertains to the restoration or amendments of corporate and non-corporate charters; and
  4. authorizes holdings by non-profit organizations of a charitable, civic, library or like nature.

While the laws of the State of Rhode Island are easily accessible and equally understandable, many citizens are not fully informed in the area of new legislation and its effects. As a citizen of the State of Rhode Island, the information provided by the Session Lists will hopefully help to inform you of the Rhode Island General Assemblyís many accomplishments during this legislative year. 


Comments regarding this page may be emailed to Susan G. Pegden, Law Revision Director, at spegden@rilegislature.gov.††