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.
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
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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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court in Virginia handles cases
accused of traffic violations
need of services
have been subjected to abuse or neglect
accused of child abuse or neglect, or of offenses against members
of their own family or household members (juvenile or adult)
involved in disputes concerning the visitation, support or custody
of a child
Abandonment of children
care and entrustment agreements
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
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:
Over $3,000 but not
exceeding $15,000, concurrent jurisdiction with general district
exclusive original jurisdiction attachments
Validity of a county or
municipal ordinance or corporate bylaw.
All felonies, offenses
that may be punished by commitment to the state penitentiary
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):
Wills, trusts, and estate
Appeals from the General
District Court or J&DR District court (heard de novo)
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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COURT OF APPEALS
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
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
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
The Law Librarian
supervises a library of 85,000 volumes for use by the Court and the Bar.
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JUDICIAL INQUIRY AND REVIEW
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
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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JUDGES AND COURT PERSONNEL
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
RULES AND PRACTICES
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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