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The Supreme Court of Virginia is one of the oldest continuous judicial bodies in the United States. Its roots are deep in the English legal system dating to the early seventeenth century as part of the Charter of 1606 under which Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in North America, was established. In the 1620’s, the Virginia House of Burgesses created an appellate court, which met quarterly to hear appeals from the lower courts. Meeting on the first day of March, June, September, and December, it became known as the Quarter Court.

The June term became unnecessary over the years, and in 1661, the Quarter Court became the General Court with original and appellate jurisdiction in both civil and criminal matters. It was a court of last resort for the Virginia colonists except in those rare circumstances when an appeal could be made to the King in England. Its members were appointed by the King on the basis of social standing, property, and the proximity of their estates to the Williamsburg capital. The majority of the judges possessed no formal legal education, a characteristic of most attorneys in the 17th century.

At the close of the Revolutionary War, the court system was reorganized. An act of the new General Assembly in 1779 created four superior courts, including the Supreme Court of Appeals, to be composed of judges of the other three courts: the Admiralty, the General, and the Chancery Courts. The Supreme Court of Appeals, which served as a model for the United States Supreme Court, first convened in Williamsburg on August 30, 1779. Shortly thereafter, the Court was moved to Richmond and held its sessions in the Henrico County Courthouse. Its jurisdiction was primarily appellate, and its members were elected by the legislature.

Among the Court’s first members were several distinguished legal scholars and jurists as well as leaders of the Revolutionary period. Edmund Pendleton, who served Virginia as a delegate to the First Continental Congress, was selected by the judges as its first President. George Wythe, the mentor of Thomas Jefferson and signer of the Declaration of Independence, and John Blair, who later served on the U. S. Supreme Court, were also members of Virginia’s first Supreme Court.

Until 1788, the judges never rendered written opinions or gave reasons for their decisions. Pendleton felt that the policy of no written opinions preserved a semblance of unity for the Court and lent more credence to their decisions. Thomas Jefferson disagreed and began recording the decisions of the Court in his reports. The Court convened on the tenth day of April and met for twenty-four days unless they were able to complete their business sooner.

A legislative act of 1788 provided that the Court should be entirely separated from the other courts with five judges to be elected by joint vote of both houses of the General Assembly. These men were commissioned by the Governor and appointed for life subject to good behavior. This resulted in placing the judges beyond control of the legislature once on the bench, and the Court continued to function in this manner for more than half a century.

The Reform Convention of 1850-51 again reorganized the judiciary by limiting the terms of the justices to twelve years and providing for their election by popular vote. The State was divided into five judicial sections, and each candidate was required to be at least thirty-five years old and to reside within the section he wished to represent. The resulting Constitution of 1851 also required the Court to state in writing its reasons for reversing or affirming a judgment or a decree.

Following the Civil War, the Constitution of 1870 re-established election of judges by joint vote of both houses of the General Assembly, retaining the term of twelve years. The Constitution also required that annual sessions be held away from Richmond in the localities of Wytheville, Staunton, and Winchester. This mandate from the days of horse and buggy travel continued into the twentieth century, with sessions being held in Staunton as late as September, 1970.

By Constitutional amendment in 1928, the number of justices was increased to seven and the title of the presiding officer of the Court was changed from President to Chief Justice. At the same time, the amendment significantly increased the power given the Supreme Court by permitting the Court to prescribe forms and to regulate the practice of Virginia’s courts.

The Constitution of 1971 changed the name of the Court to its present title of Supreme Court of Virginia.