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Court System ...


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Magistrates  |  District Court  |  Circuit Court  |  Court of Appeals  |  Supreme Court  |  Administration  |  
Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission
  |  Court Personnel  |  Uniform Rules and Practices

The mission of Virginia's judicial system is to assure that disputes are resolved justly, promptly, and economically. The components necessary to discharge this function are a court system unified in its structure and administration, competent, honest judges and court personnel, and uniform rules of practice and procedures. This information is offered to promote a better understanding of the operation of the Virginia court system and the manner in which its mission is accomplished.

The present system consists of four levels of courts: the Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Circuit Courts, and the District Courts. In addition, magistrates serve as judicial officers with authority to issue various types of processes. The courts are organized into 31 judicial circuits and 32 similar judicial districts. More than 2, 550 people, including judges, clerks, and magistrates, work within the judicial branch of government to provide the citizens of the Commonwealth prompt, efficient service.

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In many instances, a citizen's first contact with the judicial system of the commonwealth comes through the office of the Magistrate. A principle function of the magistrate is to provide an independent, unbiased review of complaints brought to the office by police officers, sheriffs, deputies, and citizens. magistrate duties include issuing various types of processes such as arrest warrants, summonses, bonds, search warrants, subpoenas and civil warrants. One of the chief duties of the magistrate is conducting bond hearings to set bail in instances in which as individual is charged with a criminal offense. A magistrate may also accept prepayments for traffic infractions and minor misdemeanors. 

Each judicial district is served by a chief magistrate and a number of magistrates. The large urban areas generally utilize full-time magistrates who work on a shift basis to maintain an office twenty-four hours a day. In contrast, the majority of rural magistrates work on an availability basis and are contacted as needed. Some magistrates work on a fixed schedule during the day and are "on call" during the night.

Magistrate offices provide information to the public pertinent to judicial system processes and procedures and extend assistance whenever possible 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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Virginia's unified district Court system consists of the General District and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts. Within the 32 Districts of the state, there are General District Courts and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts in every city and county.

The General District Court decides all criminal offenses involving ordinances, laws, and by-laws of the county or city where it is located and all misdemeanors under state law. A misdemeanor is any charge which carries a penalty of no more than one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500.00 or both.

The Code of Virginia defines criminal offenses and sets penalties. For many offenses the penalty described is a fine. Fines collected for violations are paid into the treasury of the city, town, or county whose ordinance ahs been violated, or into the State treasury for violation  of state law. In order to offset the cost of operating the courts, the General Assembly has established a processing fee which is charged every convicted defendant. Monies obtained from this fee are paid into the State treasury.

The District Courts do not conduct jury trials. All cases are heard by a judge. Each defendant in a criminal case is presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Upon consideration of evidence the judge decides the questions of guilt or innocence and on a finding of guilt determines which penalty as set by the Code, is proper and lawful.

The General District Court decides civil cases in which the amount in question does not exceed $15,000. Civil cases vary from suits for damages sustained in automobile accidents to suits by creditors to receive payment on past due debts. In Virginia, claims for less than $3,000 can be initiated only in General District Courts.

The General District Court also hears cases in which a person is charged with a traffic offense. If convicted of certain traffic violations, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles will assess points against the person's drivers license. This is in addition to any sentence imposed by the judge.

The General District Court holds preliminary hearings in felony cases, that is, any charge which may be punishable by more than one year in jail. These hearings are held to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to justify holding the defendant for a grand jury hearing. The grand jury determines whether the accused will be indicted and held for trial in the Circuit Court.

The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Virginia handles cases involving:
Juveniles accused of traffic violations 
Children in need of services
Children who have been subjected to abuse or neglect
Spousal abuse
Adults accused of child abuse or neglect, or of offenses against members of their own family or household members (juvenile or adult)
Adults involved in disputes concerning the visitation, support or custody of a child 
Abandonment of children
Foster care and entrustment agreements
Court-ordered rehabilitation services
Court consent for certain medical treatments

In Virginia, a juvenile is a person under 18. A delinquent is a juvenile who has committed an act which would be a crime if committed by an adult. A child in need of services (CHINS) is a juvenile who has committed certain actions which, if committed by adults, would not be considered criminal offenses - such as truancy or habitually running away from home. Child abuse and neglect involves the improper care or violent handling of juveniles.

Juvenile courts differ from other courts in their duty to protect the confidentiality of all juveniles coming before the court, and in their commitment to rehabilitate or treat rather than punish, those who come before the court. The welfare of the child and the family is the paramount concern in the court's proceedings. With limited exception because of the confidentiality laws, the clerk's office can only provide limited information about a case and then only to those people involved with the case.

As with the General District Courts, all parties subject to a court order or judgment may appeal the decision to the Circuit court. Appeals must be noted with the clerk within 10 days of the court's decision. Cases appealed to the Circuit Court are reheard de novo (completely new).

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The only trial court of general jurisdiction in Virginia is the Circuit Court. The Circuit courts have jurisdiction over the following:

Civil Claims:
Over $3,000 but not exceeding $15,000, concurrent jurisdiction with general district courts
Exceeding $15,000 exclusive original jurisdiction attachments
Validity of a county or municipal ordinance or corporate bylaw.

Criminal Cases:
All felonies, offenses that may be punished by commitment to the state penitentiary
Misdemeanor charges originating from a grand jury indictment transfer or certification of felony offenses committed by juveniles.

Equity Suits (claims seeking a judgment for something other than money):
Divorce proceedings
Wills, trusts, and estate matters
Property disputes
Adoption proceedings

Appeals from the General District Court or J&DR District court (heard de novo
appeals from administrative agencies
These courts also handle any case for which jurisdiction is not specified in the Code of Virginia.

At the beginning of each term of the Circuit Court a grand jury is convened. These juries serve two purposes. First, they consider bills of indictment and second, they determine whether there is sufficient probable cause to believe that a person accused of having committed a serious crime did commit such crime and should stand trial. The Grand Jury does not hear both sides of the case and does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

A special Grand Jury is convened to investigate any condition which tends to promote criminal activity in the community or which indicates malfeasance of governmental agencies or officials. This Grand Jury has subpoena powers and may summons persons, documents, or records needed in its investigation.

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The Court of Appeals of Virginia provides for intermediate appellate review of all decisions of the circuit courts in traffic infractions and in criminal cases, except where a sentence of death has been imposed; and decision of circuit courts involving domestic relations matters and appeals from administrative agencies. It also hears appeals from decisions  of the Virginia Workers; Compensation. While appeals in criminal and traffic infraction cases are presented by a petition for appeal, all other appeals to the court of Appeals are a matter of right. Other civil decisions of the circuit court are appealed directly to the Supreme Court by petition for appeal. The Court of Appeals also has original jurisdiction it issue writs of mandamus, prohibition, and habeas corpus in any case over which the court would have appellate jurisdiction.

The decisions of the Court of Appeals are final in traffic infraction and misdemeanor cases where no incarceration is imposed, in cases originating before administrative agencies or the Virginia Workers' Compensation commission, and in domestic relations cases. Except in these cases where the decision of the Court of Appeals is final, any party aggrieved by a decision of the Court of Appeals may petition the Supreme Court for an appeal.

The Court of Appeals sits at such locations as the chief judge designates, so as to provide convenient access to the various geographic areas of the Commonwealth. The Court sits in panels of at least three judges, and the membership of the panels is rotated. The Clerk of the court of Appeals receives, processes and maintains permanent records of appeals and other documents filed with the court.

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Although the Supreme Court of Virginia possesses both original and appellate jurisdiction, its primary function is to review decisions of lower courts from which appeals have been allowed. Virginia does not allow an appeal to the Supreme Court as a matter of right except in cases involving the State Corporation Commission, the disbarment of an attorney and review of the death penalty. The Court's original jurisdiction is limited to cases of habeas corpus (ordering one holding custody to produce the detained person before the Court for the purpose of determining whether such custody is proper). mandamus (ordering the holder of an office to perform his duty), and prohibition (ordering an action stopped in a lower court). The Supreme Court also has original jurisdiction in matters filed by the Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission relating to judicial censure, retirement, and removal of judges.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court serves as the administrative head of Virginia's judicial system. In this role he is charged with overseeing the efficient and effective operation of the entire system. Assisting him in this task is the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court, who is the state court administrator.

The Office of the Executive Secretary provides administrative assistance to the Supreme Court and all courts in the judicial system through its eight departments. The departments within the O.E.S. include Educational Services, Dispute Resolution, Fiscal Services, Judicial Planning, Legal Research, Management information Systems, Personnel, and Technical Assistance.

The administrative structure of the Supreme court of Virginia also includes the Clerk of the Court, the Court Reporter, the Chief Staff Attorney, and the Law Librarian.

The Clerks' Offices receive process, and maintain permanent records of all appeals and other official documents files with the appellate courts. The Clerk of the Supreme Court also maintains records of Attorneys qualified to practice in the Court, as well as other administrative records.

The Reporters of Decisions, who are eminent faculty members of law schools in Virginia, are responsible for overseeing the compilation, indexing, printing, and publication of the written opinions of the Supreme Court in the Virginia Reports, and the court of Appeals in the Virginia court of Appeals Reports.

The Chief Staff Attorney and his staff provide research capabilities for the justices of the Supreme Court. The work of this office enables the justices to more effectively determine which petitions for appeal will be heard by the court.

The Law Librarian supervises a library of 85,000 volumes for use by the Court and the Bar.

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The Judicial Inquiry and Review Commission was established to investigate complaints of misconduct made against judges of the state. The Commission has jurisdiction to investigate the judges of the Commonwealth as well as members of the State corporation Commission and the Virginia Workers' compensation Commission. JIRC may bring charges against judges for violations of any canon of judicial ethics, misconduct in office, or failure to perform their judicial duties.

The commission is composed of seven members, elected be a majority vote of both Houses of the General Assembly, who serve four year terms. Membership includes one Circuit Court judge, one General District court judge, one Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge, two lawyers, and two public members. The commission employs an attorney who serves as its counsel. Counsel to the Commission receives and investigates complaints and presents the findings to the Commission.

The Judicial Council is charged with the responsibility of making a continuous study of the organization, rules, and methods of procedure and practice of the judicial system of the Commonwealth. It is responsible also for examining the work accomplished and results produced by the system and its individual offices and courts. A report of the proceedings and recommendations of the Council is made to the General Assembly and to the Supreme Court on an annual basis.

The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court is presiding officer for the Council whose membership includes one Court of Appeals judge, six Circuit Court judges, one General District court judge, one Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge, two attorneys qualified to practice in the Supreme Court, and the Chairmen of the Committees for Courts of Justice in the Virginia Senate and House of Delegates, Council members are appointed by the Chief Justice and serve for four years, or during his pleasure.

The Committee on District Courts was created to assist the Chief Justice in the administrative supervision of Virginia's unified court system. Among the statutorily mandated responsibilities of the CDC are recommending new judgeships and certifying the need to fill district court vacancies, authorizing the number of clerks, magistrates and personnel in each district, establishing guide lines and policies for court system personnel and fixing salary classification schedules for district court personnel and magistrates.

Membership of this Committee includes the Chairmen of the Committees for Courts of Justice in the Senate and House of Delegates, two members of each of the Courts of Justice Committees appointed by the respective Chairman, Speaker of the House, Majority leader in the Senate, one Circuit Court judge, one General District court judge, and one Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court judge. These judicial members are appointed by the Chief Justice and serve at his pleasure.

The Judicial Conference of Virginia was organized to discuss and consider means and methods of improving the administration of justice in the Commonwealth. Active members include the Chief Justice and justices of the Supreme Court, all judges of the Court of Appeals, the Circuit Courts, and all retired justices and judges of such courts. The Chief Justice serves as President of the Conference. Six Circuit Court judges, one Court of Appeals judge and one retired judge are elected to serve on the Conference's Executive Committee. The Conference conducts its business through nine standing committees.

The Judicial Conference of Virginia for District Courts is similar to the Judicial Conference for Circuit Courts in its mission and responsibilities. membership includes the Chief Justice, who serves as its President, and all active judges of the General District and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts. Seven District Court judges and one retired judge are elected to serve on the Executive Committee structure similar to the Judicial Conference of Virginia.

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The quality of a court system is determined chiefly by the quality of its judges and court personnel. Virginia is fortunate to have a judiciary of the highest competence and integrity. The judges of Virginia's District Courts are elected by a majority vote of each house of the General Assembly for terms of six years. Vacancies in district court judgeships occurring when the General Assembly is not in session are filled by the circuit court judges of the corresponding circuit. The judges so appointed must be elected by the next session of the General District Court judge and a Chief Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court trudge elected by peer vote for a two year term. The chief judge is the administrative head of the respective courts in the district and is responsible for the management of the courts.

Virginia has 120 General District Court judges. There are about 26,000 new cases each year for each judge. ninety-nine juvenile and domestic relations district court judges serve the state with over 5,200 new cases per judge each year.

The 147 judges of the Circuit courts are also elected by a majority vote of each House of the General Assembly. They serve for eight-year terms. Interim appointments are made by the Governor subject to election by the General Assembly at the next regular session. The Chief Judge of the circuit is elected for a two year term by a vote of the judges serving in the circuit. On average there are nearly 1,700 new cases each year per judge.

The personnel support for the circuit courts is under the direction of the Clerk of the Circuit Court who is a constitutional officer and chief administrator of the circuit court, elected for a term of eight years by the voters of the locality. The clerk has authority for the probate of wills, grants of administration, and appointment of guardians. The clerk is the custodian of the court records, and the clerk's office is where deeds are recorded and marriage licenses are issued.

A totally independent judicial personnel system has been established for those support personnel in the district court and magistrate systems. Selection of these employees is on a merit basis with all positions established within at system of uniform job classifications which insures equal treatment of employees doing similar work throughout the state.

Court personnel are not attorneys and are not permitted to offer legal advice. However, they can provide general procedural information and try to assist the public an any way possible.

The ten Court of appeals judges are elected and receive interim appointments in the same manner as the circuit court judges. They serve a term of eight years. The chief judge is elected by a vote of the ten judges, for a term of four years. The Court of Appeals has had an average of 3,100 appeals filed per year.

The Supreme Court of Virginia is composed of seven justices elected by a majority vote of each House of the General Assembly for a term of twelve years. Interim appointments are made by the Governor subject to election by the General Assembly at the next regular session. By law, the senior justice in years of service on the Court is the Chief Justice. Each year over 2,700 petitions for appeal are filed with the Supreme Court.

Continuing education for judges and court personnel is essential in maintaining a satisfactory level of professional competence in the court system. Regularly scheduled education conferences are supplemented by videotape refresher courses, visits to correctional facilities, and distribution of printed educational materials.

Uniformity of practice is regarded as a vital element for the development of a sound judicial system. The constitution of Virginia authorizes the Supreme Court of Virginia to promulgate rules governing the practice and procedures to be used in the Courts of the Commonwealth. The Court receives recommendations on Rules of Court from the Judicial Council. The Council receives and studies al suggestions for rule changes from the bench, bar, and citizens.

The formulation of the administrative policy for the courts in Virginia, while being ultimately within the authority of the Chief Justice as the administrative head of the system, is vested on a routine basis in the Judicial council and the Committee on District courts. These bodies deal with the daily practices of the courts and seek ways by which to improve their procedures. Skillful use of the rulemaking authority and the administrative policy making authority provides two excellent mechanisms by which uniformity of procedures can be advanced.

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