The Virginia Justice System and Its Courts

Information on the different courts in Virginia and their purpose according to a Virginia criminal defense lawyer. To discuss an appeal or where your case will be heard, call today and schedule a free consultation.

The General District Courts

The first court that anybody charged with a crime in Virginia will go to is the General District Court. That’s a court not of record, meaning typically there will not be a stenographer there taking minutes unless a defendant or the Commonwealth chooses to have one. There are no juries in that courtroom. Trials will only be heard by judges. Trials are held on misdemeanors, but for felony cases, there are no trials in General District Court. General District Court judges preside over preliminary hearings and if they find there is sufficient  evidence to bind a charge over to the grand jury they will do so. After a grand jury indicts, all felony charges are heard in Circuit Court.

The Circuit Courts

In the Circuit Court, all felonies are handled to disposition, meaning a dismissal, a plea, or a trial. Misdemeanors that are appealed are heard by the Circuit Court. When appealed, cases are heard “de novo” meaning “anew,” so whatever happened in General District Court will have no real effect on the case in Circuit Court. Defendants who appeal misdemeanor convictions are entitled to a completely new trial in the Circuit Court and can demand a jury if they so desire.

In Circuit Court everyone is entitled to a jury trial if they so choose, including the commonwealth, even if the defendant does not want the case heard by a jury. Circuit Court judges can also try the case without a jury if all parties agree.

Appealing Circuit Court Decisions

If a defendant chooses to go to trial in Circuit Court and they’re found guilty, that conviction is binding. However, a case may be appealed to the Court of Appeals of Virginia on any issues that may have been wrongly decided by the judge  in Circuit court.

A Circuit Court is a court of record, meaning everything is taken down and transcribed. Any potential legal errors that arise from any pretrial motions or during trial may be appealed to the Court of Appeals and that court will receive a record of the proceedings from Circuit Court.

Should either side not be happy with the Court of Appeals’ decision, the last chance is with the Supreme Court of Virginia. The Supreme Court of Virginia does not have to accept all cases appealed to it, and will only select a limited number with novel issues to hear.

The Supreme Court will review the Court of Appeals’ decision (which in itself was reviewing the Circuit Court’s decision).  Once the Virginia Supreme Court rules on issue most of the remedies have been exhausted.

The absolute last resort is the Supreme Court of the United States which could have jurisdiction eventually. Getting a petition granted by the Supreme Court to be heard is extremely rare.  They accept a very small percentage of cases appealed to them.

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