Virginia Courts: A Brief Overview

Author: Attorney David M. Williams, Jr.

As a Virginia personal injury trial attorney, I spend the majority of time in the circuit and district court levels. However, there are four (4) levels of courts in Virginia; here’s a brief overview of the court system. The four levels of courts in Virginia are: the District Courts, the Circuit Courts, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court.

DISTRICT COURTS The District Courts are organized into thirty-two (32) districts and consist of two courts: the general district courts and the juvenile/domestic relations (JD&R) district courts. There is a General District Court and a JD & R District Court in every county and city. All cases at this level are heard by a judge, elected by the General Assembly to a six (6) year term. There are no jury trials at this court level.

The General District Court handles the following types of cases:

  • Criminal offenses involving local laws and all misdemeanors (penalty of no more than 1 year in jail or a fine of up to $2,500.00 or both) under state law.
  • Preliminary hearings for felonies (penalty of more than 1 year in jail.) These hearings determine whether there is enough evidence to justify holding the accused over for a grand jury hearing which will determine whether he/she should be indicted and tried in the circuit court.
  • Traffic infractions.
  • Civil cases where the amount in dispute does not exceed $15,000.00. Civil cases typically involve claims for damages/disputes over money and include damages sustained due to a motor vehicle accident. Claims for less than $4,500.00 can only be brought in General District Court. (In a few areas, there is a separate small claims division where the dispute does not exceed $5,000.00).

The Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts have two defining characteristics. One is its duty to protect the confidentiality of juveniles (persons under the age of 18). A second is balancing its goal of rehabilitating rather than punishing while still protecting our community and holding individuals accountable for their actions. These courts hear a variety of cases including the following:

  • Juvenile traffic violations
  • Juvenile delinquency matters
  • Children in need of services/supervision (CHINS)
  • Child abuse/neglect
  • Offenses against members of one’s own family
  • Adults in disputes regarding visitation, support or custody of a child
  • Spousal support issues
  • Foster care

Any court order or judgment entered by a judge at the district court level — general district or JD & R — can be appealed to the circuit court level if the appeal is made (“noted”) within ten (10) days of the decision. Once the case has been appealed, the Circuit Court will hear the matter as if it were a new case.

CIRCUIT COURTS The Circuit Courts are organized into thirty-one (31) circuits across the state. These courts are where the more serious personal injury cases are tried. However, the Circuit Courts are courts of “general jurisdiction”, which means they handle a broad range of cases. The types of cases these courts handle include the following:

Civil Cases:

  • Monetary claims exceeding $15,000.00 (exclusive jurisdiction)
  • Monetary claims from $4,500.00 – $15,000.00 (concurrent jurisdiction with general district court)
  • Attachments
  • Validity of county/municipal ordinance or corporate bylaw

Criminal Cases:

  • All felonies
  • Misdemeanor charges from a grand jury indictment
  • Transfer of felony offenses by juveniles

Equity Suits:

  • Divorce
  • Wills, trusts and estates
  • Property disputes
  • Adoption proceedings

Appeals:

  • From the general district and JD & R district courts
  • From administrative agencies

Cases in Circuit Court may be tried by a judge or by a jury. The Circuit Court judges are elected to eight (8) year terms by the General Assembly. A final order or judgment from the Circuit Court can be appealed to the Court of Appeals or directly to the Supreme Court – depending on the type of case. For example, domestic relations and most criminal cases must be appealed to the Court of Appeals, but personal injury and death penalty cases are appealed directly to the Supreme Court.

COURT OF APPEALSThe Virginia Court of Appeals consists of eleven (11) judges who are elected by the General Assembly for eight (8) year terms. This Court’s administrative headquarters are located in the Supreme Court Building, Richmond, VA. This Court provides appellate review of a variety of cases including the following:

  • Traffic cases from circuit court (final decision if no jail time is involved)
  • Felony and misdemeanor criminal cases (except death penalty cases.) Final decision on misdemeanor cases involving no jail time
  • Domestic relations matters from the circuit court
  • Decisions of the Virginia Workers’ Compensation Commission (final decision)
  • Administrative agency appeals (final decision)
  • Final decisions from the circuit court regarding concealed weapons permit applications
  • Certain preliminary rulings in felony criminal cases when requested by the Commonwealth

The Court of Appeals does not automatically hear the appeals of all cases. For example, you must petition this court to hear your appeal in criminal and traffic infraction cases. The Court of Appeals may or may not decide to hear your case. All other appeals are heard as a matter of right. Finally, unless the case is one where the decision of the Court of Appeals is final, a party may petition the Virginia Supreme Court for an appeal of a decision by the Court of Appeals.

SUPREME COURT The Supreme Court of Virginia is made up of seven (7) justices elected by the General Assembly for a term of twelve (12) years. They are headquarted in Richmond, Virginia. Their primary role is to review decisions by the lower courts. The only appeals the Supreme Court will consider as a matter of right involve:

  • Death penalty cases
  • State Corporation Commission cases
  • The disbarment of an attorney

For all other cases, you must petition the Supreme Court for an appeal. Although the Supreme Court receives a large number of petitions for appeal every year, only a fraction are granted and considered by the whole Court.

For more information on Virginia’s judicial system, please refer to www.courts.state.va.us.

About the Author: David Williams is a personal injury attorney for Allen & Allen working mainly in Fredericksburg and Garrisonville, Virginia. His legal career has focused almost exclusively on personal injury law, wrongful death, medical malpractice and products liability cases. He has successfully argued cases before the Virginia Supreme Court.