The Virginia Supreme court is the highest court of appeals in the state. The judicial system has a rich and storied past that goes back a few hundred years. It’s evolved remarkably since its early beginnings. Law students and residents that live in Virginia who take an interest in the history and operations of the supreme court can learn much about it through its numerous educational outreach programs. Our review of the facts yielded some fascinating tidbits of information about the Virginia judicial system. To familiarize you with the evolution of the judicial system, here are twenty things you probably didn’t know about the Virginia Supreme Court.
1. The roots of the Virginia Supreme Court go back to Colonial days
The Virginia Supreme Court’s beginnings go back to the time when Virginia was a British colony. The Supreme Court of Virginia got established in the year 1779. It enters its 243rd year of existence, according to Wikipedia. It’s one of the oldest courts in the United States. The colony of Virginia was established as a permanent English settlement in 1623. The earliest court was established in the years 1606 under Jamestown, Virginia before the region was recognized as a state. it was still under British rule and British law.
2. The Virginia Supreme Court began under the English judicial system
The Supreme Court of Virginia started under the English judicial system. It even had a different name. The judicial system began with the creation of the Virginia House of Burgesses. It is among the oldest judicial bodies in the nation. The judicial system was instituted as a part of the Charter of Virginia in 1606, establishing it as a seventeenth-century courts system. The Appellate Court met quarterly, receiving appeals from lower courts in the Colony of Virginia.
3. The first Court was a Quarter Court
Interestingly, the first Court in Virginia had various names or references. Although formally established by the Virginia House of Burgesses, it was also called the Quarter Court. The reason for the nickname is that the court met quarterly on the first day of March, June, September, and December. Since it met quarterly to hear appeals from the lower courts in the Colony of Virginia, it became known as the Quarter Court.
4. The Virginia Supreme Court is the highest court of the Commonwealth of Virginia
The Virginia Supreme Court is the highest appellate court in the state of Virginia. It is the Court of last resort. The Supreme Court hears cases when the findings of the lower courts are not satisfactory to all parties involved. It is the last legal option for defendants or plaintiffs who believe that their rights are violated by the judicial system. The Virginia Supreme Court hears cases with the potential to set powerful precedents of the law within the judicial system. It mostly hears cases from circuit courts criminal law, family law, and administrative law. It has the final say over high-profile cases within the State of Virginia.
5. The name of the Supreme Court of Virginia changed in 1970
The Supreme Court of Virginia, also known as the Virginia Supreme Court has gone through a few name changes in its rich and storied history. The first Court was known as the Quarter Court, meeting at regular quarterly intervals to hear cases. Its name changed to the General Court in the year 1661. The court heard criminal and civil matters. The name of the court was officially the Supreme Court of Appeals until 1970. It was renamed the Supreme Court of Virginia because of its original and appellate jurisdiction. The name was more filling than the Supreme Court of Appeals, which contained no reference to which state it represented.
6. The appeals process for the Virginia Supreme Court have evolved
The early Quarter Court held the last word for civil and criminal appeals heard in the colony of Virginia in the 1600s and early 1700s. There was one final resort associated with the judicial system during that time. In exceptionally rare circumstances, cases could be forwarded to the King of England as the final appeal. The King had the final say over civil and criminal matters, however, the King was rarely involved in judicial matters unless they had a significant impact upon the Colony.
7. The appointment process for the justices has changed
The first justices for the Supreme Court of Virginia were appointed by the King of England in the early 1600s through the latter part of the 1700s. The Colony of Virginia was still under English rule and ownership at the time. The appointees were made members of the court per their social standing with the King of England, the ownership of property in the colony, and the closeness of their estates to the then colonial capital of Williamsburg. The appointees were required to meet certain social conditions before they were considered for the role of justice/judge for the Supreme Court of Virginia.
8. Early judges were untrained
The King of England appointed justices for the appellate court based on social standing, but most had no formal training in the law. There were few law schools available for training lawyers and judges, and many did not have the option of attaining education. The King chose men for the positions that he believed were capable of rendering fair rulings on the matter, but most had little experience with the legal system and they were not required to be attorneys before their appointment to the court.
9. The number of justices on the Virginia Supreme Court has changed
The first appellate court for the Virginia Colony had five appointed members. The number has changed throughout the years. The initial court was overseen by five members appointed by the King of England. The number of justices remained at five after the Revolutionary War with the appointment made by an election of the legislature. The current number of seats on the bench of the Supreme Court of Virginia is seven. The number of seats was changed in 1928 through a constitutional amendment that also stipulated the title of presiding officer changed from President to Chief Justice. The power of the Supreme Court increased significantly through the amendment of 1928.
10. The Virginia Supreme Court was overseen by lower court judges
The Virginia Supreme Court elected its members before 1779 through the legislature. Changes came in 1779 through 1788 that changed the composition of the judges. For these years, judges of the other three superior courts which included the Court of Admiralty, the General Court, and the High court of Chancery made up the Supreme Court of Virginia. The High Court of Chancery had precedence over judges of the other courts. Edmund Pendleton was the first judge nominated for the court. He was titled the First Judge of the Court, presiding over the court of appeals processes.
11. The Supreme Court of Virginia went through flux
The Supreme Court of Virginia underwent multiple processes and evolutions throughout the years since its inception. Numerous acts and amendments changed the composition, appointment processes, and powers given to the judicial body. In 1788 a legislative act abolished the Court of admiralty. This led to the Court of Appeals breaking away from its original three courts to become its separate entity. The act also reduced the number of judges from five to three in 1806 by an act of assembly. Judges were elected by a joint vote of the two houses of the General Assembly. By 1810, the number of justices went back to five.
12. The location of the courts has changed through the years
The Supreme Court of Virginia was first held in Williamsburg. Various amendments to the constitution and acts changed the location where the court was held through the years. According to Supreme Court Virginia History, 1831 legislation required an annual session of the Virginia Supreme Court to be held in Greenbrier county in Lewisburg, in July. It’s the part of the state that is now West Virginia. The Constitution of 1870 further required annual sessions of the court to be held in Winchester, Staunton, and Wytheville.
13. The election process was made public in the 1800s
For the first time in the history of the Virginia Supreme Court, the election of judges was made by voting members of the public of the Commonwealth. The power of the people to elect the justices was made law by The Constitution of 1851. Other important changes also happened through the new constitution that held judges accountable to the constituency for the decisions they made on cases of appeal. They were required to state the reasons for affirming or reversing a decree or judgment in writing.
14. Election by the people was reversed in 1864
Yet another constitution changed the election process for the appointment of justices to the Supreme court of Virginia. The Constitution of 1864 took back the election process for judges and took it out of the hands of the people and returned it to the General Assembly. They also reduced the number of seats from five to three. The process was short-lived, however, and just four justices were elected under the terms of the Constitution of 1864.
15. The Supreme Court of Virginia removed judges in 1869
Tumultuous times were endured by the judicial system in the state of Virginia in 1869. This was an era of military reconstruction for the state. A new federal law was passed during the time that required all officials in the states of Virginia and Texas to be removed if they had a military record confirming service to the Confederacy. Major General John Schofield dismissed justices Rivers, Joynes, and Moncure in compliance with the law. To fill the gaps, he appointed Westel Willoughby, Orloff Mather Dorman, and Horace Blois Burnham in their places. They continued to serve on the court until 1870 when a new state constitution was ratified.
16. The Supreme Court of Virginia has longer terms than some other states
The Supreme Court of Virginia elected its supreme court justices for twelve-year terms. Virginia’s terms are longer than some other state supreme courts. When a justice nears the end of a term, elections are held to fill the position. If a justice meets the current requirements, he or she must be reappointed to serve another twelve years.
17. The Virginia Supreme Court still appoints its justices through the legislature
Ballotpedia confirms that the Supreme Court for the state of Virginia still appoints its justices by the state legislature. It is one of the few states that requires appointment through the direct legislature. there are only two other states that use this selection method. It makes the Virginia Supreme Court stand out from most others in this aspect.
18. The Virginia Supreme Court reviews over 1,000 cases annually
The justices on the Virginia Supreme Court stay busy. In 2018, the seven judges reviewed 1,697 appeals cases. It’s time-consuming because each decision made must be followed up with a written explanation for the decision regardless of whether it was found in favor of the plaintiff or the defense.
19. Justices for the Virginia Supreme Court must meet requirements
Justices must meet minimum requirements to be eligible for appointment to the Supreme Court of Virginia. They must be residents of the state, a member of the bar for a minimum of five years, and meet the age requirement. They must be 70 years old or younger to qualify.
20. The chief justice is chosen by peers
The Virginia Supreme Court selects its chief justice by a vote. The other judges serving on the Supreme Court cast their votes for the chief justice, and the majority rules. The position of chief justice serves for a four years term in the capacity of a leader. The outgoing chief justice serves out the remainder of their twelve-year term as justice.