Attorney, The Creekmore Law Firm PC

In my last post, I explained the difference between a trial and an appeal and highlighted the manner in which an appellate court rules on issues before it. In this post, I’d like to focus in more on the specific process for appealing a verdict in Virginia.

Examining Virginia Trial Courts

To understand appeals in Virginia, we must first examine the Virginia trial court system. Virginia has two kinds of trial courts: district courts and circuit courts. District courts (split further into general and juvenile & domestic relations district courts) are informal courts that handle traffic offenses, misdemeanor criminal defenses, and lesser civil actions. Circuit courts, on the other hand, try felony matters and major civil cases. While we can say much more about the functioning of these trial courts and the nuances of their jurisdiction, the important feature to note for the purpose of understanding Virginia’s appellate process is that the district courts are not courts of record (meaning court reporters are not present), nor do they have juries. For these reasons, a person subject to a negative verdict may seek an “appeal” to circuit court by following particular deadlines and filing requirements. This kind of appeal is not a “true” appeal of the kind I described in my previous post, “Understanding Appeals,”where the reviewing court gives great deference to the decisions of the trial court below. Rather, Virginia law calls not for an “appeal” but a brand new, or de novo, trial under these circumstances. This new trial proceeds in circuit court as if the first trial had not taken place.

Appealing From Circuit Court

Once a trial has concluded and a final verdict reached in circuit court, a party subject to an adverse final ruling from the circuit court may make a true appeal to either the Court of Appeals of Virginia or the Supreme Court of Virginia. Unlike some states, the Court of Appeals of Virginia is not a true intermediate court. Some cases go from Circuit Court to the Court of Appeals of Virginia, while others go from the Circuit Court directly to the Supreme Court of Virginia. Cases where an appeal lies at the Court of Appeals of Virginia include criminal cases where the death penalty has not been imposed, family law cases, cases appealed from the full Workers’ Compensation Commission, and cases appealed from the Circuit Court that reviewed an administrative case decision or passage of an administrative regulation. The Supreme Court of Virginia, in contrast, reviews all other civil cases and criminal cases where the death penalty has been imposed. The Supreme Court of Virginia will also review cases from the Court of Appeals of Virginia that touch upon a significant constitutional question or significant question of statutory interpretation.

Appeals of Writ and Appeals by Petition

Most cases appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia are by petition, which is to say that the Court will decide whether to grant an appeal and decide a case on its merits. Appeals where the death penalty has been imposed, appeals from a decision of the State Corporation Commission, and appeals where an attorney has been disbarred are not subject to petition and are considered on the merits as a matter of right. Likewise, the Court of Appeals of Virginia considers the merits of all cases appealed to it except the criminal cases under its jurisdiction. In practice, the Court sees a large number of appeals from criminal cases, many of which it denies at the petition stage.

How Do I Win an Appeal in Virginia?

Winning an appeal is no easy feat. As a matter of sheer numbers, most appeals result in affirmance of the trial court below. Nevertheless, experienced appellate counsel can recognize whether the right steps were taken at trial and can put a complex statutory or technical argument in the best light possible. While there are no guarantees, this kind of discernment can mean the difference between an affirmance and a reversal.

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