Circuit courts in Virginia are the state’s trial courts with general jurisdiction; unlike general district courts, the circuit courts can hear and try a whole range of both civil and criminal cases. There are 31 circuits across the Commonwealth of Virginia, comprised of 120 individual circuit courts, and they are the highest trial courts with general jurisdiction.
The types of cases heard in Virginia circuit courts
As the next highest court in Virginia after general district court, circuit courts naturally have jurisdiction over higher level criminal cases in addition to other types of cases. The following list details circuit court’s jurisdiction for specific types of cases:
- Jurisdiction over the trials of all felonies.
- Jurisdiction over misdemeanors on appeal from a general district court or originally charged in circuit court.
- Jurisdiction over juveniles aged 14 and older who have been charged with felonies and/or whose cases have been transferred by the judge of a juvenile and domestic relations district court for trial in circuit court.
- Concurrent jurisdiction with general district court for claims between $4,500 and $25,000.
- Exclusive original jurisdiction over almost all claims in excess of $25,000.
- Jurisdiction over divorce cases, adoption proceedings any disputes over wills and estates, and controversies concerning real property (e.g. dwellings, buildings).
It’s also important to know that the circuit court has appellate jurisdiction over all appeals from general district courts, juvenile and domestic relations district court, and administrative agencies. That means if you appeal your case in general district court, it will be heard in circuit court de novo – tried from the start as if there had been no prior trial.
Circuit court judges
Circuit court judges are elected for eight-year terms by a majority vote of both houses of Virginia’s General Assembly, and at any given time there are at least two judges serving each circuit (and as many as 15). Judges who preside over cases in circuit court must reside in the circuit they serve and must have been admitted to the Virginia Bar at least five years prior to election. Prior to the General Assembly’s vote, the House and Senate Committees for Courts of Justice begin taking nominations and assessing qualifications.
Felony cases – from general district court to circuit court
If you’ve been charged with a felony in general district court, it will likely be heard, tried, and resolved in circuit court.
First, however, you’ll have an arraignment (or first appearance) before the general district court where the criminal charges being brought against you will be read. If you have already hired a criminal defense attorney, he or she will contact the court and you might not have to attend the arraignment.
Next, you’ll be required to appear for the preliminary hearing. Its purpose is to determine whether it is possible for you to have committed the offense with which you’ve been charged. The judge presiding over the hearing only hears the prosecution’s evidence in deciding. Occasionally the felony charge will be reduced to a misdemeanor and resolved in general district court, but most of the time the judge will find the prosecution’s evidence sufficient. In these instances, the cases will be sent to grand jury. The preliminary hearing is an important opportunity for you and your attorney to hear what evidence the Commonwealth has against you.
A grand jury will meet to decide if there is probable cause to maintain the charges against you and move the case from general district court to circuit court. The jury will only hear the prosecution’s side of the case and does not determine guilt or innocence; instead, if the prosecution has produced sufficient evidence for the case to continue, the grand jury issues an indictment (formal statement of charges) against you. This serves as the initial basis for the case’s proceedings in circuit court. If the Grand Jury decides the evidence is insufficient, no indictment will be issued and the case will be dismissed. The prosecutor then has one more try for an indictment.
If the grand jury issues an indictment, the next step is trial, which is heard and tried in circuit court.
Before trial, your attorney can file pre-trial motions (requests) to the court. There can be motions to dismiss or suppress evidence, motions to reduce bail, and so on. Having an attorney to guide you through this process can improve your chances at trial and could strengthen your position in plea negotiations.
A notable difference between general district courts and circuit courts is that only circuit courts hold trials by jury. The U.S. Constitution guarantees a defendant the right to a jury. However, in criminal cases, you can only receive a trial by jury if you’ve entered a plea of not guilty. A judge hears and determines your case if you plead not guilty or no contest. If you are charged with an offense that is being heard in circuit court, you can with the consent of the court and the commomwealth attorney waive your right to a jury trial.
Appealing a case from a Virginia Circuit Court
While you have the right to appeal your case from general district court to the circuit court for a new trial if you’re unsatisfied with the outcome, it differs for cases heard in circuit court. General district courts are not courts of record, while circuit courts are.
An appeal from the circuit court to the Virginia Court of Appeals for felony cases is discretionary. If the Court of Appeals grants the appeal, it will not retry your case de novo. Instead, the Court of Appeals will review the record of legal proceedings in circuit court, which includes written motions, the trial transcript, and trial exhibits. The Court of Appeals checks for technical errors to see if any affected the outcome of your case; if the Court of Appeals does not find a serious error, it will affirm the circuit court’s judgment.