Civil Appeals after Circuit Court: A Rarity on Virginia’s Homefront
By Rachel Shafer.
Just as there is a general district court (“GDC”) in each city and county in Virginia, the same is true for the circuit courts in Virginia. The Virginia circuit court system is comprised of 31 judicial circuits with 120 circuit courts all across the Commonwealth. Circuit courts deal with all civil claims of more than $25,000, giving this court the most extensive powers in Virginia. Cases appealed from GDC as well as juvenile and domestic relations district court are also heard here.
Who will hear the case?
In circuit court, trial is by jury only, which is, typically, a 6-person jury. Circuit judges are appointed by the legislature for an 8-year term. The clerk of the circuit court is also appointed for an 8-year term. The role of the clerk is to handle all administrative matters, such as recording deeds, issuing marriage licenses, and appointing guardians. The circuit court is Virginia’s highest trial court with general jurisdiction-there is no limit on the cases it can consider. Examples of the cases include:
- Disputed wills and/or estates
- Divorce cases
- Felonies and/or misdemeanors
Cases appealed from GDC are heard de novo in Circuit Court, meaning the cases are tried from the very beginning, as if there had not been a previous trial. Also, circuit courts have the authority to implement grand juries (5-7 people) or special grand juries (7-11 citizens).
To initiate a civil action in circuit court, a plaintiff must file a complaint in the circuit court clerk’s office. A defendant then has 21 days after being served with the complaint to respond. A defendant’s response is termed an “answer.” (Defendants can also file a counterclaim or cross-claim against another defendant, but the 21-day response is still required). If a defendant does
not respond by the 21-day deadline, the complaint is deemed true and the plaintiff can be awarded a default judgment.
Where to Appeal?
The circuit court decision can be appealed to the Court of Appeals of Virginia or the Supreme Court of Virginia through a petition for appeal. Cases appealed to the Court of Appeals include domestic relations, traffic infraction, and criminal cases. (The Court of Appeals is considered the intermediate appeals court and it consists of 11 judges). The Supreme Court handles cases focused on the death penalty, lawyer behavior, and most civil cases. (The Supreme Court is called “The Court of Final Resort” and is comprised of a chief justice and six justices). But there is no automatic right to appeal from a circuit court.
Appeal in Circuit Court= Small Chance
The Supreme Court grants appeals in only a small percentage of the cases filed. In civil cases in 2016, only 95 out of 318 cases were granted. All in all, because few petitions are granted, the chance of having a civil judgment heard on appeal is very low. Statistics show that appeals before Virginia’s highest court have decreased by one-third from 2000, and the same is true for the Court of Appeals. Thus, because fewer appeals are being granted, fewer are being decided. An appeal, therefore, is a rare commodity in the courts of Virginia.