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Introduction to Virginia's Judicial System

What are courts?

Courts are part of the judicial branch of government and responsible for interpreting laws when a law is broken or there is a dispute. Courts hear criminal, civil, juvenile, domestic, and traffic cases.

How are courts organized in Virginia?

The Supreme Court of Virginia is one of the oldest continuous judicial bodies in the United States. Its roots are deep in the English legal system, dating to the early seventeenth century as part of the Charter of 1606 under which Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, was established. In 1623, the Virginia House of Burgesses created a five-man appellate court which met quarterly to hear appeals from the lower courts. At the close of the Revolutionary War, the court system was reorganized.

Today, the system includes 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. In Juvenile & Domestic Relations (J & DR) District Courts, intake officers serve as officers of the court with authority set forth in Virginia law.

Virginia's judicial system is represented in the figure below:

Virginia's Judicial System

There are 32 judicial districts in Virginia and every city and county in Virginia has a General District Court and a J & DR District Court. Shown in the map below are Virginia’s judicial circuits and districts.

Map of Virginia

Most cases enter Virginia’s judicial system through magistrates who determine whether there is probable cause to believe an offense has been committed. In juvenile courts, most cases enter through intake officers who review complaints and determine whether there are enough facts to involve the court.

General District Courts hear traffic cases, criminal cases involving minor offenses, and civil cases involving smaller monetary claims.

As the name suggests, Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts have authority in matters related to juveniles and to domestic relations. The term “domestic relations” refers to family relationships.

Decisions in District Courts – both General and J & DR – may be appealed to the Circuit Court.

Circuit Courtshear criminal cases involving more serious offenses, called felonies, civil actions involving larger monetary claims, and appeals from District Courts.

The Court of Appealshears appeals of decisions of Circuit Courts and cases from certain state agencies.

The Supreme Court of Virginia reviews decisions of the Court of Appeals and lower courts and handles matters related to the operation of Virginia’s judicial system.

What does a magistrate do?

The main job of the magistrate is to provide an independent, unbiased review of complaints brought to the office by police officers, sheriffs, deputies, and citizens and determine whether there is probable cause for a warrant or summons to be issued. “Probable cause” is a reasonable belief based on facts that would cause a reasonable person to feel that the accused committed the offense.

Magistrates can issue arrest warrants, summonses, bonds, search warrants, subpoenas, and civil warrants. Another important duty is to conduct bond hearings to set bail in instances in which an individual is charged with a criminal offense. A magistrate may also accept prepayments for traffic infractions and minor misdemeanors.

What does an intake officer do?

J & DR District Court intake officers receive and review complaints and determine whether there are enough facts to involve the court. They are authorized to handle cases informally or may authorize filing a petition to bring the matter before the judge. They are also authorized to detain juveniles when necessary. Intake officers do not handle criminal charges against adults that come into the juvenile court; these go through the magistrate.

How do General District Courts operate?

There is a General District Court in every city and county in Virginia. A General District Court decides all criminal offenses involving ordinances, laws, and by-laws of the county or city in which 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, or both.

General 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 first decides the question of guilt or innocence. If the defendant is found guilty, the judge then determines the penalty. The Code of Virginia defines criminal offenses and the range of penalties to be imposed.

General District Courts also decide civil cases in which the amount in question does not exceed $25,000. Civil cases vary from lawsuits for damages sustained in automobile accidents to lawsuits by creditors to receive payment on past due debts. Claims of less than $5,000 are sometimes heard in what is referred to as “small claims court.”

Traffic cases are also heard in General District Courts. In addition to any fine that the judge imposes, those convicted of certain traffic violations will have “points” assessed against their driver’s licenses by the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles. Excessive points can result in a license being suspended or revoked.

General District Courts also hold preliminary hearings in felony cases (that is, any charge that 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.

In 2007, Virginia General District Courts dealt with more than 3.3 million cases.

Decisions in a General District Court may be appealed to the Circuit Court. Cases appealed to the Circuit Court are reheard de novo. This means that cases are heard as completely new cases; all evidence is reheard and a decision is made based on the evidence.

How do Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts operate?

It is important to understand that J & DR District Courts differ from other courts. The welfare of the juvenile and the family, the safety of the community, and the protection of the rights of victims are the highest concern in the court’s proceedings. In addition to protecting the public and holding juvenile offenders accountable for their actions, J & DR Courts have a duty to protect the confidentiality and privacy of juveniles coming before the court and a commitment to rehabilitate those who come before the court. 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. In other respects, J & DR Courts generally have the same requirements and provide the same safeguards as other courts. This court does not, however, conduct jury trials. All cases are heard by a judge.

J & DR Courts in Virginia handle cases involving:

  • juvenile delinquency and status offenses;

  • juveniles accused of traffic violations;

  • children in need of services or supervision;

  • children who have been subjected to abuse or neglect;

  • 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;

  • spousal support;

  • abandonment of children;

  • foster care and entrustment agreements;

  • court-ordered rehabilitation services; and

  • court consent for certain medical treatments.

In Virginia,

  • a juvenile is any person under 18 years of age.

  • a delinquent is a juvenile who has committed an act which would be a crime if committed by an adult.

  • a status offender is a juvenile who has committed certain actions which, if committed by adults, would not be considered criminal offenses – such as a curfew violation.

  • a child in need of supervision is one who engages in truancy or habitually runs away from home.

  • a child in need of services is one whose behavior, conduct, or condition poses a risk of harm to himself or herself or to another person.

Child abuse and neglect cases involve the improper care or injurious handling of juveniles.

In 2007, Virginia J & DR District Courts dealt with more than 540,000 cases.

Decisions in a J & DR Court may be appealed to the Circuit Court. Cases appealed to the Circuit Court are reheard de novo. This means that cases are heard as completely new cases; all evidence is reheard and a decision is made based on the evidence.

What does a Circuit Court do?

Circuit Courts have jurisdiction over the following:

Civil actions:

  • exclusive original jurisdiction in claims exceeding $25,000; concurrent jurisdiction with General District Courts in claims over $4,500 but not exceeding $25,000

Criminal cases:

  • all felonies, and offenses that may be punished by commitment to the state prison

  • misdemeanor charges originating from a grand jury indictment

  • transfer or certification of felony offenses committed by juveniles

Appeals:

  • appeals from the General District Court or J & DR District Court

  • appeals from certain administrative agencies

The Circuit Court judge can convene a grand jury.

Decisions of the Circuit Court may be appealed to the Virginia Court of Appeals. In 2006-2007, more than 188,000 criminal cases and 96,000 civil cases were dealt with in Circuit Courts in Virginia.

What are grand juries?

Grand juries serve two purposes:

  1. to consider indictments prepared by the Commonwealth’s Attorney (the grand jury determines whether there is probable cause to believe that the person accused has committed the crime charged in the indictment and should stand trial), and

  2. to investigate and report concerning any condition which involves or tends to promote criminal activity, either in the community or by any governmental authority, agency, or official. The grand jury has subpoena powers and may summon persons, documents, or records needed in its investigation.

The grand jury hears only the commonwealth’s side of the case and does not determine the guilt or innocence of the accused.

A regular grand jury is composed of five to seven citizens of the city or county in which the Circuit Court is located; it is convened at each term of the court to consider indictments prepared by the Commonwealth’s Attorney (the grand jury determines whether there is probable cause to believe that the person accused has committed the crime charged in the indictment and should stand trial).

Members of the grand jury must

  • be citizens of Virginia at least 18 years of age,

  • have been residents of the state for at least one year, and

  • have been residents of the county or city in which they are to serve for at least six months.

Citizens selected by the Circuit Court judge are to be “of honesty, intelligence, and good demeanor.”

A special grand jury is composed of seven to 11 citizens and is summoned by the Circuit Court to investigate and report any condition which involves or tends to promote criminal activity, either in the community or by any governmental authority, agency, or official thereof. A special grand jury may be impanelled by the Circuit Court (1) at any time upon the court’s own motion, or (2) upon the recommendation of a minority of the members of a regular grand jury. A special grand jury must be impanelled upon the recommendation of a majority of the members of a regular grand jury. A special grand jury may also be impanelled at the request
of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

The qualifications for members of a special grand jury are the same as for a regular grand jury.

What does the Court of Appeals do in Virginia?

The Court of Appeals of Virginia provides for review of decisions of the Circuit Courts in traffic infractions, in criminal cases except where a sentence of death has been imposed, and in Circuit Court cases involving domestic relations matters. The Court of Appeals also hears appeals from administrative agencies and the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission. Decisions of the Court of Appeals can be appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Eleven judges serve on the state Court of Appeals. The Court sits at locations designated by the chief judge 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.

In 2007, the Virginia Court of Appeals dealt with more than 3,000 cases.

What does the Supreme Court of Virginia do?

The primary function of the Supreme Court of Virginia is to review decisions of lower courts. Other cases also handled by the Supreme Court include those involving corporations, the conduct of attorneys and judges, and the performance of other public officials.

In 2007, the Virginia Supreme Court acted upon more than 2,800 cases.

How does someone become a judge in Virginia?

The judges of Virginia’s District Courts are elected by a majority vote of each chamber of the General Assembly for terms of six years. Vacancies in District Court judgeships occurring when the General Assembly is not in session are temporarily filled by the Circuit Court judges of the corresponding circuit until the General Assembly is back in session.

The judges of Virginia’s Circuit Courts are elected by a majority vote of both chambers of the General Assembly for terms of eight years. The governor makes interim appointments when the General Assembly is not in session, but these appointments are subject to confirmation by the General Assembly at the next regular session.

The 11 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 11 judges for a term of four years.

The Supreme Court of Virginia is composed of seven justices elected by a majority vote of each chamber of the General Assembly for a term of 12 years. Interim appointments are made by the governor subject to confirmation by the General Assembly at the next regular session. As prescribed by law, the Chief Justice is chosen by the majority vote of the seven justices.

What are drug courts?

In Virginia, drug courts are not separate courts but are specialized court dockets within the existing structure of the court system. Those convicted in drug and drug-related cases are closely monitored and strictly supervised while they undergo intensive treatment for drug addiction.

Additional Information

About Virginia's Judicial System
Visit the Virginia Supreme Court web site.