Introduction to a Virginia Courtroom
What are courts?
Courts are part of the judicial branch of government and are responsible for interpreting laws when a law is broken or there is a dispute. Courts hear criminal, civil, juvenile, domestic, and traffic cases. Courts make decisions, and impose penalties when people break the law. Criminal cases involve a violation of law; civil cases involve a dispute between individuals or groups of individuals.
Hearings are held in courtrooms that are located in courthouses. Every city and county in Virginia has a courthouse with courtrooms.
General District Courts hear traffic cases, criminal cases involving minor offenses, and civil cases involving smaller monetary claims.
As the name suggests, Juvenile and Domestic Relations (J & DR) District Courts have authority in matters related to juveniles and to domestic relations. In Virginia, juveniles are defined as anyone less than 18 years of age. The term “domestic relations” refers to family relationships.
Decisions in District Courts – both General and J & DR – may be appealed to the Circuit Court.
Circuit Courts hear criminal cases involving more serious offenses, called felonies, civil actions involving larger monetary claims, and appeals from District Courts.
The Court of Appeals hears appeals of decisions of Circuit Courts in the areas of criminal law and domestic relations law, and appeals of cases coming from certain state agencies.
The Supreme Court of Virginia reviews decisions of all of the lower courts, including the Court of Appeals, and handles matters related to the operation of Virginia's judicial system.
A judge is in charge of the courtroom. The judge listens to testimony and ensures that the law is applied and interpreted accurately and fairly for everyone. In a juvenile court, the judge makes all the decisions. Judges in Virginia are appointed by the Virginia General Assembly. In some other states they are elected by the voters.
A clerk of court is responsible for keeping a court’s official records. The clerk prepares a record of all cases or actions scheduled for a particular day; this record is called a docket. A clerk of court for a Circuit Court is elected by the voters of his or her city or county.
A bailiff is responsible for keeping order in a court. In Virginia, bailiffs are usually deputy sheriffs.
An attorney is an individual who has studied the law, passed an examination, and is licensed to practice law. Attorneys are often referred to as lawyers.
A Commonwealth's Attorney represents the Commonwealth of Virginia in criminal cases. The Commonwealth’s Attorney presents evidence to prove that a defendant is guilty of a crime or crimes. In Virginia, Commonwealth’s Attorneys are elected by the voters in the city or county.
In a criminal case, the defendant is the person who has been accused of committing a crime. In a civil case, the defendant is the person being sued by another party who alleges the defendant has injured or harmed him or her in some way.
The plaintiff is the party making the complaint. In a criminal case, the plaintiff is the government because committing a crime violates the rules of society and is, therefore, considered a crime against the state. In a civil case, the plaintiff is the party who alleges he or she has been injured or harmed in some way.
A defense attorney is responsible for representing and defending a defendant against the complaints and the evidence presented by the plaintiff.
In a civil case, the plaintiff's attorney represents the party making a complaint and presents evidence that the defendant injured or harmed the plaintiff in some way.
A witness is a person who testifies about what he or she has seen or heard. Witnesses are sworn to tell the truth. If a witness fails to tell the truth, he or she can be charged with the crime of perjury.
A jury is a group of citizens who listens to testimony, determines the facts, and applies the law. In a criminal case, the jury determines whether the defendant is guilty or not guilty and, if the defendant is found guilty, recommends the sentence to be imposed. In a civil case, the jury determines whether the defendant has caused harm to the plaintiff and, if so, what damages are to be paid. In a juvenile court, there is no jury; all decisions are made by the judge.