The Virginia judicial system ensures that disputes are resolved fairly and promptly. The judicial system comprises the court system unified in its structure and administration, judges and court personnel, and uniform rules of practice and procedure.
The Virginia court system has four levels of courts: The Supreme Court, the Court of Appeals, the Circuit Courts, and the District Courts. Virginia also authorized magistrates to serve as judicial officers with the authority to preside over various kinds of processes. The state’s court system is divided into 31 judicial circuits and 32 districts.
Usually, a citizen's first contact with the Virginia judicial system is with a magistrate. Magistrates are mandated to provide independent, unbiased reviews of complaints of criminal conduct brought by law enforcement officers or the general public. Magistrates are empowered to issue arrest warrants, summonses, search warrants, emergency protective and custody orders, and specific civil warrants. A Virginia Magistrate can conduct bail hearings in a situation where an individual is arrested to determine under what conditions the arrestee should be released from custody pre-trial. There are Magistrate Offices located across Virginia, including at least one in each of the state's 32 judicial districts.
There are six Justices and a Chief Justice serving in the Supreme Court. Eleven Appeal Court Judges serve on the Court of Appeals. Supreme Court Justices serve 12-year terms, while judges of the Court of Appeal and the Circuit Courts serve eight-year terms. The judges of the General District Courts and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court serve six-year terms.
Each court operates an administrative office that maintains the Virginia court records it generates during judicial proceedings. The ultimate goal of the judicial branch and the executive and legislative branches is to maintain law and order and administer justice.
What is the Virginia Supreme Court?
The Supreme Court of Virginia is the court of last resort in the state. It consists of a Chief Justice and six Justices. The court's primary purpose is to review decisions of lower courts from which appeals have been allowed. The Supreme Court handles cases involving corporations, the conduct of judges and attorneys, and the performance of other public officials. An appeal to the Supreme Court is not a matter of right except in cases involving the State Corporation Commission, certain disciplinary actions against attorneys, and reviews of impositions of death penalties. The decisions of this court are binding on itself and all lower courts in Virginia.
Virginia Court of Appeals?
The Court of Appeal is the intermediate appellate court in Virginia. The court reviews all decisions of the Circuit Court in domestic relations matters, appeals from the decisions of an administrative agency, traffic violations, and criminal cases. A petition must first be filed through the Circuit Court before a traffic or criminal case may be reviewed by the Virginia Court of Appeals. Appeals of final decisions of the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission are also heard in the Court of Appeals. The court has original jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus, prohibition, and habeas corpus in any case over which the court has appellate jurisdiction, and writs of actual innocence (based on non-biological evidence). The Virginia Court of Appeals does not review decisions involving the death penalty.
Appeal of traffic, criminal, denial of a concealed handgun permit, and certain preliminary rulings on felony cases are brought before the Virginia Court of Appeals by petition for appeal, while all other appeals to the court are a matter of right. Other civil decisions of the Circuit Court bypass the Court of Appeals and go directly to the Supreme Court of Virginia by petition for appeal.
By statute, the decisions of the Court of Appeals are final on matters of traffic infractions and misdemeanor cases where no incarceration is imposed, in domestic relations matters, and cases arising from administrative agencies or the Virginia Workers' Compensation Commission. Although, upon a petition for review, the Supreme Court may review those decisions as well if it finds that the ruling of the Court of Appeals involves a substantial constitutional question as a determinative issue or matters of significant precedential value. In cases where the decision of the Court of Appeals is not final, an aggrieved party may petition the Supreme Court for an appeal.
Established in 1985, the Court of Appeals consists of 11 judges who sit in panels of at least three judges. The membership of the panels is periodically rotated. Under certain conditions, the court may also sit en banc. The Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals designates the sitting location of the court. The locations are also rotated to provide convenient access to the various geographic areas of Virginia.
Virginia Circuit Courts?
Virginia Circuit Courts are trial courts of general jurisdiction. The Circuit Court is the sole court with the authority to try any case for which jurisdiction is not specified in the Code of Virginia. Circuit Courts are the only trial courts of record and the only courts where juries are provided for the trial of criminal cases.
Virginia Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over the following types of civil actions:
- Divorce proceedings
- Wills, trusts and estate matters
- Property disputes
- Adoption proceedings
- Exclusive original jurisdiction of monetary claims exceeding $25,000
- Validity of a county or municipal ordinance or corporate bylaw
- Shared jurisdiction with General District Courts of monetary claims of more than $4,500 but not exceeding $25,000.
The following types of criminal cases are handled in the Circuit Courts:
- All felonies, which are offenses that may be punished by imprisonment of more than one year
- Misdemeanor offenses that were appealed from the District Court or originated from a grand jury indictment
- Transfer or certification of felony offenses committed by juveniles
Virginia Circuit Courts hear appeals from the General District Courts or Juvenile Domestic Relations District Court de novo. That is, these cases are heard as completely new cases, with evidence reheard and a decision made based on the evidence. Circuit Courts also handle appeals from administrative agencies. The Virginia Circuit Court convenes a grand jury at the start of each term of the court. The responsibility of the grand jury is to consider bills of indictment to 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. Note that the grand jury does not hear both sides of the case and does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.
Certain conditions may necessitate the convening of a special grand jury. Such conditions include the need to investigate any condition that tends to promote criminal activity in the community or indicates malfeasance by government officials or agencies. Special grand juries typically possess subpoena powers and may summon persons, documents, or records needed in its investigation.
Decisions of the Circuit Courts may be appealed to the Court of Appeals or in specific cases, to the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Virginia court system consists of 31 judicial circuits with 120 different circuit courts in the counties and cities of Virginia.
Virginia District Courts?
District Courts are Virginia's courts of limited civil and criminal jurisdiction. Jury trials are not held in these courts; rather, cases are heard by judges. Virginia divides its District Court system into two: the General District Court and the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. There are General District Courts and Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts in every city and county within the 32 judicial districts of Virginia.
The General District Court handles all criminal cases involving misdemeanors under state law and offenses that are violations of ordinances and laws of the county or city where the court is situated. Virginia defines a misdemeanor as any charge that carries a penalty of up one year in jail or a fine of up to $2,5000 or both.
Virginia's General District Courts handle traffic infraction cases and hold preliminary hearings in felony cases. During a preliminary hearing, the court determines 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 handle cases involving:
- Children accused of delinquent acts, traffic violations or status offenses
- Children in need of services or supervision
- Children who have been subjected to abuse or neglect, or abandoned
- Children whose custody, visitation, support, or parentage is before the court
- Children in foster care
- Children for whom relief of custody or termination of parental rights is sought
- Children seeking emancipation or work permits
- Children whose eligibility for federal or state benefits requires certain findings by the court
- Family or household members who have been subjected to or accused of abuse
- Adults accused of child abuse or neglect, or of offenses against a family or household member
- Spouses seeking support after separation
- Enforcement of support orders
- Court-ordered rehabilitation services
- Court consent for certain medical treatments
- Court-ordered blood testing of children
Virginia Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts are unique in that they are able to protect the confidentiality and privacy of children and their families who have legal matters before the court. These courts also consider services needed to provide rehabilitation for delinquent children. Parties subject to a Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court order or judgment may appeal the decision to the Circuit Court. Appeals must be filed in writing with the clerk within ten days of the court's order or judgement.
What are Appeals and Court Limits?
Persons who are unhappy about the decisions made by trial court judges may seek redress at a higher court. An appeal is a process in which a party to a case requests a higher court, on proper consideration of facts placed before it, and the applicable law, to verify that the lower court arrived at the correct decision.
According to Va. R. Sup. Ct. 5:17, unless otherwise provided by rule or statute, in any case of appeal direct from a trial court, a petition for appeal must be filed with the clerk of the appellate court not more than 90 days after entry of the judgment of the lower court. In the case of an appeal from the Court of Appeals, Virginia also stipulates a 30-day limit from the entry of the appealed judgement or denial of a timely petition for rehearing.
How Do I Find My Case Number in Virginia?
A case number is a unique number assigned to individual court cases for easy identification and tracking. Specific information can be obtained from case numbers, such as the filing year, case type, and the assigned judicial handling officer. Knowing the case number for a particular case can help record custodians locate requested records when performing a court record search. Where the case number is not known, the record custodian in accordance with the laws of Virginia may charge nominal fees for conducting a search.
Case numbers can be found through the Virginia online case management system if requesters can provide other information such as the name of a party to the case or hearing date. Using any of these two options to query the case management system will return case information showing case numbers for all search results.
Does Virginia Hold Remote Trials?
Following the protocols established in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, trial courts in Virginia were permitted to use two-way videoconferencing for all proceedings with the consent of all parties involved. Per an announcement of Supreme Court Chief Justice Donald W. Lemons, judges may in their discretion, conduct any civil or criminal matter by electronic audio-visual communication with the consent of the participants. However, the Chief Justice does not recommend the use of videoconferencing applications in the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court advised trial courts to enable security checks in their use of video conferencing applications. For instance, security measures for zoom application use include:
- Ensuring that the participants have the most current software version of the Zoom client
- Requiring authentication
- Requiring a meeting password
- Enabling a waiting room
- Limiting screen sharing
- Limiting join before host
- Locking the meeting upon the arrival of participants
- Identifying guests
- Avoiding making meetings public and sharing meeting links in unrestricted social media posts.