Judicial

Supreme Court of Virginia

The Supreme Court of Virginia (SCV) is Virginia’s highest court and the only appellate court with jurisdiction to review any case.  For civil cases, however, there is no right to an appeal — a party who takes issue with a circuit court’s decision must petition the SCV to take the case.

The SCV’s website contains slip opinions of its “published” decisions since June 1995, which are issued at the end of each oral argument session (for the preceding session’s cases), along with some ability to search SCV and CAV opinions.  The SCV does not post its “unpublished” orders/decisions online, even those that are the final disposition of a case and contain legal reasoning.

The SCV offers limited case information online, which does not include any access to the case documents.  After a decision comes out, the key case documents are the merits briefs (the briefs that are filed after the court has decided to take a case) and the joint appendix (the document that contains the material parts of the case records from the lower courts).  The SCV has merits briefs and joint appendices in electronic form, but it does not provide them to the public (outside of some access in the State Law Library).  For access to documents in a pending (not yet decided) case, see the Clerk’s Office. For access to documents in an already decided case, see the State Law Library.  (If getting to the State Law Library in Richmond isn’t easy, try one of the other public law libraries or the library at a state university’s law school, such as the University of Virginia or the College of William & Mary.)

The SCV’s website contains its general calendar, showing when it is hearing oral arguments and when panels of justices are hearing argument in support of petitions for an appeal.  The SCV does not post online, however, dockets for which arguments will occur on certain days; such information can be requested from the Clerk’s Office.

The SCV makes audio recordings of oral arguments on the merits (the hearing after an appeal has been accepted at which both sides argue the substance of a case), but it allows no public access to those recordings.

Court of Appeals

The Court of Appeals of Virginia (CAV) is an intermediate appellate court with limited jurisdiction — i.e., it hears only certain types of cases, most importantly criminal, domestic relations, and adminstrative appeals.

The CAV’s website contains slip opinions of its published decisions since May 2, 1995 (along with some ability to search SCV and CAV opinions) and does the SCV one better by also making available unpublished opinions since March 5, 2002.  The CAV’s website also links to the same page for searching SCV and CAV opinions as is on the SCV’s website.

As with the SCV, the CAV offers only limited case information online, which does not include access to any case documents.  For access to documents in a pending (not yet decided) case, see the Clerk’s Office. For access to documents in an already decided case, see the State Law Library.  (See above for links to other publicly accessible law libraries.)

The CAV’s website contains its general calendar, showing when it is hearing oral arguments.  The CAV also posts dockets for which arguments will occur on certain days.

The CAV also makes audio recordings of oral arguments on the merits.  Although the CAV does not make those recordings available online, it may allow orders for a copy of a past recording (for a small charge).  Contact the CAV Clerk’s Office for details.

Circuit Courts

Virginia’s Circuit Courts are its general purpose trial courts, hearing nearly every type of case that may be brought in state court.  Their decisions and opinions are a critical part of Virginia law, and their judges are a key source of the judges and justices of Virginia’s appellate courts.

Each circuit court has a Clerk’s Office that maintains the court’s records.  Circuit court clerks are independent constitutional officers — elected directly by the public in the relevant locality.  This is a mixed blessing:  it promotes responsiveness of individual clerks to their local public, but it creates a decentralized judicial administration that operates unevenly and does not necessarily have the welfare of the Commonwealth as a whole in mind.

Given the largely independent operations of individual clerks’ offices, blanket statements about how circuit courts work and the availability of records is nearly impossible.  Although there is an online circuit court case information system, it does not cover all circuit courts (and some large and sophisticated courts like Fairfax and Henrico aren’t covered), and it does not provide any access to case filings.  A number of circuit courts provide online access to case filings, but only to attorneys who file an application, pay a fee, and agree to restrictive terms of use.  Only three circuit courts (Fairfax, Loudoun, and Norfolk) provide free, online public access to copies of opinions.

District Courts

Virginia has two kinds of district courts:  General District Courts (GDCs), and Juvenile and Domestic Relations (J&DR) District Courts (follow these links for the state court website with contact information, forms, and other information).  Although such courts do important work, they are not courts of record — they rarely produce opinions or explained orders, and their cases rarely involve transcripts or formal briefs and filings.  District court cases can be appealed to circuit courts, which then approach those cases fresh, without deference to the district court decision (de novo, in legal terms).

Basic district court case information is available online for most district courts, but there is no access to case filings.

Last updated: 1/11/2014