Thursday, February 7, 2013

Courts of Virginia

A Courtroom Scene from Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia (cf.,

The evolution of the judicial system in the Commonwealth of Virginia, from that of the colonial era, to the early Constitutions of the Republic, to our modern post-Civil War system is a remarkable process.  I first present here a few paragraphs on the Colonial and Revolutionary era courts from an earlier paper of mine:

" Justices of the Peace: the County Court

The most significant organ of local colonial rule prior to the Revolution was the county court of gentlemen justices of the peace.  These men were at the heart of the county government, for “[i]ndividually he had minor powers and responsibilities which included settling suits for small debts, issuing peace bonds, and ordering persons to appear before the county court to answer an indictment.  Collectively the justices of a county constituted the county court.”[1]  The county court in eighteenth century Virginia presided over matters now considered judicial, legislative, and even executive concerns.  Indeed, the matters under the jurisdiction of the justices of the peace in colonial Cumberland are now divided between the circuit court and the board of supervisors in Virginia counties.

The governor and his council appointed the justices of the peace under commissions, as the one quoted above, and at the recommendation of the current members of the court.  Although not strictly bound by law to select the men nominated by the court, custom dictated that this was done an overwhelming percent of the time.  Indeed, in 1744 the Justices of the Peace in Spotsylvania refused to continue in office when the governor “put in the Commission” several men “without a Recommendation from the Court.”[2]  This, however, was an exceptional case.  The vast majority of appointments were merely affirmations of the local recommendations.  Indeed, the governor and council looked to the same landowning gentlemen to preserve the common good and order of the colony as the freeholders of the county usually did.  The members of the court generally served for life and received no official compensation for their work as justices.[3]  Before sitting as a gentleman justice of the peace, the following oath, mandated in 1748,[4] was to be sworn, under penalty of £300 fine:

You shall swear, that as justice of the peace in the county of … in all articles of the Commission to you directed, you shall do equal right to the poor and the rich, after your cunning, wit, and power, and according to the law; and you shall not be of counsel of any quarrel hanging before you, and the issues, fines, and amerciaments, that shall happen to be made, and all forfeitures which shall fall before you, you shall cause to be entered, without any concealment or imbeziling; you shall not let, for gift or other cause, but well and truly you shall do your offices of justice of the peace as well within your county court, as without; you shall not take any fee, gift, or gratuity, for any thing done by virtue of your office and you shall not direct, or cause to be directed, any warrant by you to be made to the parties but you shall direct them to the Sheriff, a bailiffs of the said county, or other king’s officers or ministers, or other indifferent persons, to do execution thereof.[5]

[1] Charles S. Syndor, Gentlemen Freeholders: Political Practices in Washington’s Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952), 80.
 [2] Ibid., 82.
[3] Albert Ogden Porter, County Government in Virginia: A Legislative History, 1607-1904 (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1966), 68.
[4] Cf., V Hening 489.
[5] Porter, County Government in Virginia, 48."

[cf., From,"To declare for an Independency": Cumberland County, Virginia and the Revolution: 1749-1789 / by Thomas Eric Cole;]

Prior to the Revolution, the court of appeal above the county courts was the Governor and his Council.  Again, the distinction between executive, legislative, and judicial authority was hardly a rigid distinction.

This structure, of a local county court not only administering justice, but exercising legislative and executive authority in the County continued until well after the Revolution.  Indeed, as before the Revolution, Virginia's first Constitution provided that: "The Governor, with the advice of the Privy Council, shall appoint Justices of the Peace for the counties; and in case of vacancies, or a necessity of increasing the number hereafter, such appointments to be made upon the recommendation of the respective County Courts."

Of course, the Constituion of 1776 did establish a Supreme Court in Virginia, providing that: "The two Houses of Assembly shall, by joint ballot, appoint Judges of the Supreme Court of Appeals, and General Court, Judges in Chancery, Judges of Admiralty, Secretary, and the Attorney-General, to be commissioned by the Governor, and continue in office during good behaviour."

The 1831 Constitution did little to change the character of the Judiciary in Virginia so far as this blogger can tell.  [cf.,]

In the 1851 Constitution, which eliminated the property requirements for votings, and introduced the practice of electing judges, the Circuit Court replaced the County Court of old.  In addition, District Courts, an appellate court above the Circuit Court, that would be the forerunner of the current Court of Appeals, were introduced.

In the wake of the Civil War, Virginia's Underwood Constitution of 1869 provded for, "[a] board of supervisors, consisting of one member elected from each township, was to perform the executive function in each county" [William Hemphill et al., Cavalier Commonwealth (New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Ltd., 1957), 351] and the very formation of "townships" within Virginia was a new development, as well, imposing a more northern system on the Southern state.  Of course, these "townships" would not survive, yet their remnants, the magisterial districts, do remain today.  The local courts then would only concern themselves with judicial matters, as the new Board of Supervisors would exercise executive and legislative functions for the Counties of the Commonwealth.  This Constitution envisioned both County Courts and Circuit Courts with jurisdiction over several counties, in addition to the Supreme Court, with all judges nominated by the General Assembly.

The 1902 Constitution provided for the selection of judges on the Supreme Court and the Circuit Courts by the General Assembly, and then commissioned by the Governor.  In the 1902 Constitution, Cities of the First Class had their own "Corporation Court," while the County Courts disappear entirely in favor of the Circuit Courts.

Moving to our own day, and the structure provided by the 1971 Constitution, that in force today, only provides specifically for a Supreme Court. [cf.,], leaving to the General Assembly to duty of forming lower courts and appointing their judges.

At present, Virginia has a 7 member Supreme Court, an 11 member Court of Appeals (which alternates sitting in Richmond, Alexandria, Chesapeake, and Salem), 31 Circuits, with 120 courts, and, finally 32 districts of General District Courts and Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Courts.

The state provides these definitions for the Courts of Virginia today:
Supreme Court: "Virginia’s court of last resort, the Supreme Court reviews decisions of the circuit courts and the Court of Appeals when such appeals have been allowed, decisions from the State Corporation Commission, and certain disciplinary actions of the Virginia State Bar regarding attorneys."
Court of Appeals: "Virginia’s intermediate appellate court, the Court of Appeals reviews decisions of the circuit courts in domestic relations matters, traffic infractions and criminal cases (except death penalty cases), appeals from administrative agencies, and decisions of the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission."
Circuit Court: "Serving the Commonwealth through 31 judicial circuits, the circuit court is the general jurisdiction trial court with authority to try all types of civil and criminal cases."
General District Court: "Serving the Commonwealth through 32 judicial districts, the general district court is a limited jurisdiction trial court that hears civil cases involving amounts in controversy up to $15,000, and conducts trials for traffic infractions and misdemeanor offenses."
Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court: "Serving the Commonwealth through 32 judicial districts, the juvenile and domestic relations district court is a limited jurisdiction trial court that hears cases involving children and families."

Here is a map of the current judicial districts of the Commonwealth of Virginia:
Map of Virginia

[cf., for links to the pages of these circuits]

The counties and cities within these districts share the same judges within their Circuit Court or District Court.  Notice, of course, that some more populated jurisdictions still get their own circuit, much like the County courts of old, though without the executive or legislative responsibilities.  Of course, each county still elects their own Clerk, Sheriff, and Commonwealth's Attorney, as do former "first class" cities, while "second class" cities share the offices with the neighboring county, and do not have their own courts within the Circuit or District.

For a few examples, the City of Alexandria has not only its own Courts and Constitutional officers (Clerk, Sheriff, Commonwealth's Attorney), but its own Circuit, the 18th.  A mid-ranged City, but still "first class" like that of Winchester, does not have its own Circuit, but does have its own Courts and Constitutional Officers, within the 26th Circuit Court.  The City of Manassas, however, an example of a "second class" city, has neither its own Court or Officers within the 31st Circuit Court, sharing all with Prince William County, as does the City of Manassas Park.

Live well!

No comments:

Post a Comment