Virginia Judiciary

Virginia has 32 judicial districts with a lower-level General District Court and a separate Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court serving each city and county, plus 120 separate Circuit Courts
Virginia has 32 judicial districts with a lower-level General District Court and a separate Juvenile & Domestic Relations Court serving each city and county, plus 120 separate Circuit Courts
Source: Supreme Court of Virginia, Map of Virginia's Judicial Circuits and Districts

The current division of Virginia's executive, judicial, and legislative responsibilities into three separate branches did not occur until 1776. The initial settlement at Jamestown was led by a council, whose members were appointed by the managers of the Virginia Company in London but not revealed until after the Susan Constant, Godspeed, Discovery had crossed the Atlantic Ocean and reached Virginia.

The members of the council conducted the first English election in the colony, choosing Edward Maria Wingfield as their president in May 1607. John Smith reported later that the Virginia Company gave the council full responsibility for implementing justice in the colony. The President had two votes on that seven-person council, but not a veto:1

Matters of moment were to be examined by a Jury, but determined by the major part of the Councell, in which the President had two voyces.

One of the first decisions of the council was to exclude John Smith from his appointed position on the council but he was allowed to join two months later. Smith was a voting member during the trial and execution of Captain George Kendall as a spy, and for the decision to expel Wingfield from the Council and imprison him on the Discovery until the ships of the First Supply returned to England in April, 1608.

The Virginia Company struggled to find effective leaders to manage the colonists. The company sent people across the Atlantic Ocean as indentured servants of the company or its officials, or as employees hired for specific services (such as the glassmakers and soldiers), but governance by the council there was a failure initially. The disruptive behavior demonstrated by the leaders in Jamestown set a bad example, and few colonists worked hard to obey inconsistent orders that would soon be countermanded.

At one point John Smith operated as a strongman, usurping all authority from the other councilors. He warned the colonists that he controlled the storehouse of food, which was a company asset. Unless he was satisfied with a colonist's work, there would be no food rations issued. Smith was blunt in announcing he had centralized legal and political authority. As president of the council between September 1608-1609, he was the judge, jury, and executioner - and there was no appeal from his decisions:2

You see now that power rests wholly in myself: you must obey this now for a Law, that he that will not work shall not eat (except by sickness he be disabled) for the labors of thirty or forty honest and industrious men shall not be consumed to maintain an hundred and fifty idle loiterers.

And though you presume the authority here is but a shadow, and that I dare not touch the lives of any but my own must answer it: the Letters patents shall each week be read to you, whose Contents will tell you the contrary.

I would wish you therefore without contempt seek to observe these orders set down, for there are now no more Councilors to protect you, nor curb my endeavors. Therefore he that offends, let him assuredly expect his due punishment.

After what may have been an assassination attempt (council politics were not nuanced in 1609...), Smith was wounded in a gunpowder explosion and left Virginia in October 1609.

During the Starving Time of 1609-1610 after Smith left, one man murdered his wife and ate portions of her body. The official report from the Virginia Company said he was investigated, arraigned, and then "burned for his horrible villainy." Arraignment was a traditional part of English justice, but burning a condemned man to death was unusual.3

Indentured servants may have wished that they were governed by English common law in the colony. The 1606 charter was clear that all persons:4

which shall dwell and inhabit within every or any of the said several Colonies and Plantations, and every of their children, which shall happen to be born within any of the Limits and Precincts of the said several Colonies and Plantations, shall HAVE and enjoy all Liberties, Franchises, and Immunities, within any of our other Dominions, to all Intents and Purposes, as if they had been abiding and born, within this our Realm of England, or any other of our said Dominions.

John Smith is the only colonist honored with a statute at Jamestown
John Smith is the only colonist honored with a statute at Jamestown

Nonetheless, far across the ocean from the king's justice, the Virginia Company issued and enforced all the rules. Basic common law provisions such as trial by jury were not provided to Virginia colonists until 1618.

The company obtained a revised charter in 1609 that allowed it to appoint a military governor, and sent Sir Thomas Gates. He finally arrived in 1610 as the new governor, after having spent the Starving Time winter stranded on Bermuda. Lord De La Warr arrived soon afterwards as the replacement for Gates, who was presumed lost at sea. De La Warr served a year. Once again Sir Thomas Gates became governor, together with Sir Thomas Dale as first marshall between 1611-1616.

The company policies issued by Gates, De La Warr, and Dale became known as the "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall." Dale's strict controls over the soldiers in the colony were a form of martial law. Civilian flexibility was also constrained by sanitary regulations, limits on trade with Native Americans, and other directives that established order in the company's Virginia outpost.

Imprisonment was an expensive punishment, requiring the colony to provide food for someone unable to work, so those caught breaking the rules normally suffered corporal punishments such as whippings. The company-appointed governor was the local judge with final authority to rule on guilt and to impose punishments.

Those who were judged guilty had only one alternative to accepting the punishment: flee into the wilderness and hope for better treatment from the Native Americans. Though the odds of a better or longer life among Powhatan's people were thin, flight was a reasonable option because many crimes were punishable by death, including stealing food:5

What man or woman soever, shall rob any garden, publike or private, being set to weed the same, or wilfully pluck up therin any roote, herbe, or flower, to spoile and wast or steale the same, or robbe any vineyard, or gather up the grapes, or steale any eares of the corne growing, whether in the ground belonging to the same fort or towne where he dwelleth, or in any other, shall be punished with death.

As the first indentured servants completed their terms of service and gained their freedom, tobacco farming became profitable, and "private plantations" were developed separate from Jamestown's total control, the Virginia Company faced greater economic challenges. Tobacco farming finally provided an economic basis for settling in Virginia, and at the same time the Virginia Company the lost the ability to direct profits exclusively to the investors who had adventured capital and bought company stock diminished.

Complaints from Virginia came back to England on every returning ship. The company found it harder and harder to recruit new indentured servants. In 1617 it established the headright system to award 50 acres to new immigrants or, most typically, to the person who financed the shipment of a new indentured servant to Virginia.

London Company investors made one final reorganization effort in 1618. Sir Edwin Sandys replaced Sir Thomas Smythe as Treasurer, a position comparable to a combination of the modern Chair of the Board and Chief Executive Officer roles.

To make migration more attractive, the company changed its strategy for managing its investment in Virginia. It sent new instructions together with a new governor. . The Great Charter (the “Charter of Orders, Lawes, and Privileges”) replaced the harsh "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall" and a representative assembly was authorized.

Virginia's system of courts dates back to 1623, when the General Assembly created what became known as the Quarter Court. The governor of the colony plus his appointed Council (a dozen or so prominent members of the gentry) served as the court's judges; in the 150 years when Virginia was a royal colony (after the charter was revoked in 1624), the governor was also the head of the appeals court.

The court heard appeals from individual county courts in March, June, September, and December; that pattern resulted in the Quarter Court name. By 1661 the seasonal pattern had changed, and the Quarter Court was renamed the General Court.6

Virginia's first constitution separated the judicial functions from the executive and legislative branches, except at the county court level. Justices of the peace on the county courts dealt with minor offenses and civil cases, and were also responsible for passing local ordinances and managing local government services (such as the recording of land deeds). The 1776 Constitution of Virginia prohibited members of one branch of government from holding offices in another branch, except the local justices of the peace were allowed to serve in the General Assembly.7

The laws passed by the General Assembly are organized in the Code of Virginia. The most recent compilation was in 1950, so references to Title and Section refer to the 1950 Code. As new laws have been passed since 1950, the Code is revised to incorporate the revisions. (The state is planning for another revision of the code, authorized by the General Assembly in 2006.)

Previous "Codes of Virginia" date to 1942, 1919, 1887, 1973, 1860, 1849, and 1819.8

the judiciary of Virginia includes four levels: General District/Juvenile & Domestic Relations courts, Circuit Courts, and two levels of appeals courts
the judiciary of Virginia includes four levels: General District/Juvenile & Domestic Relations courts, Circuit Courts, and two levels of appeals courts
Source: Supreme Court of Virginia Diagram of Virginia’s Judicial System



1. John Smith, The General History, The Third Book, 1624, p.87, (last checked December 22, 2014)
2. John Smith, quoted in Dennis Montgomery, "Captain John Smith," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Spring 1994, (last checked January 6, 2016)
3. Dennis Montgomery, "Such a dish as powdered wife I never heard of," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Winter 2007, (last checked January 9, 2016)
4. "The First Charter of Virginia; April 10, 1606," The Avalon Project, Yale Law School, (last checked January 9, 2016)
5. Warren Billings, John E. Selby, Thad W. Tate, Colonial Virginia: A History, KTO Press, 1986, p.39; Brent Tarter, "Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, January 20, 2012; "For The Colony in Virginea Britannia. Lawes Divine, Morall and Martiall, &c," Colonial Williamsburg Journal, Summer 2011, (last checked January 9, 2016)
6. "The Governor's Council," Encyclopedia Virginia, 2012, (last checked December 17, 2014)
7. Armisted R. Long, "The Constitution of Virginia: An Annotated Edition," J. B. Bell Company, 1901, p.112, (last checked December 17, 2014)
8. "Re: history of virginia cemetery law," posting by Richard E. Dixon on VA-HIST listserver at Library of Virginia, January 13, 2009,

the General Assembly created new counties between 1634-1880 to ensure local residents could get to sessions of court without making excessively-long trips on foot or by horse
the General Assembly created new counties between 1634-1880 to ensure local residents could get to sessions of court without making excessively-long trips on foot or by horse
Source: New York Public Library Art and Picture Collection, Judges, Lawyers, And Clients Going To Court Through Western Woods (1876)

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