Information about the Courts in Richmond during the Civil War
From Justice in Grey: A History of the Judicial System of the Confederate States of America, by William Morrison Robinson, p. 76 and 77
The judicial system of Virginia departed in several noteworthy respects from the general pattern followed by the other state judiciaries. Of these departures, the introduction of regional appellate courts was the chief. These courts, virtually concurrent with the Supreme Court of Appeals itself, were modeled in structure on the United States circuit courts; and were not duplicated in any of the other States. Another outstanding difference was the complete separation, judicially, of the municipal corporations from the counties in which they were located
Under the Constitution of 1851, the Commonwealth of Virginia was divided into five sections corresponding to the nine federal circuits. The sections in turn were subdivided into ten districts, in each of which a district court was held once a year at a point designated by law. This court was held by the Supreme Court justice elected from the section, together with the circuit judges of the district. No circuit judge, of course, was allowed to sit on appeal from his own decision. Original jurisdiction was limited to writs of habeas corpus, mandamus, and prohibition; and appellate jurisdiction, in purely pecuniary matters, to a minimum amount of $100. The counties and corporations in each district were arranged in two circuits, except in District No. 3, where the City of Richmond was set apart as a third circuit. The average number of counties in a circuit was seven and the maximum eleven (and in this circuit, No. 8, there was also one corporation, the City of Fredericksburg). The circuit judge was required to hold court twice a year in each county and corporation in his circuit; and his was the court of the highest general original jurisdiction in the State, at law, in equity, and in criminal matters. The Circuit Court of the City of Richmond was vested with special jurisdiction in suits against the governor and other general officers and in relation to convicts in the penitentiary.
Next below the circuit courts were the county and corporation courts. The counties were divided into magisterial districts, with four justices of the peace in each. The county court was held by three to five justices. The corporation court was often composed of the mayor and aldermen. The hustings court of Richmond, spiritual offspring of the hustings court of London, was held not exceeding six days a month by the mayor, recorder, and aldermen, or any four of them, and twenty days by the judge of the court of hustings, who was elected for a term of eight years. In addition to the monthly courts, quarterly sessions were held in February. May, August, and November, at which grand juries attended. The hustings’ jurisdiction, at law, in chancery, and in criminal causes, was almost as extensive as a circuit court’s and furthermore included probate matters, fiduciaries, bastardies, registration of free negroes, and police cases. Decisions made by the aldermanic bench on city ordinances were subject to revision by the judge of hustings and on general questions by the Circuit Court for the City of Richmond; but appeals from the decisions of the judge lay to the district court or to the Supreme Court of Appeals in the same manner as from a circuit court.
There was a tendency in Virginia jurisprudence to limit appeals to the next higher court. The normal appeal from the circuit court was to the district court, but, if the question involved a value of $500 or more, or such subjects as estates, guardianships, personal rights, land titles, mills, roads, ferries, writs of mandamus and habeas corpus, the appellant had a choice between the district court and the Supreme Court. An appeal case once heard in a district court could not be again reviewed in the Supreme Court, but a case docketed in a district court could be transferred by consent, to another district court or even to the Supreme Court (if the matter were also with the latter’s jurisdiction)’ and similarly, a case could be moved down from the Supreme Court to a district court. Thus, a remarkable flexibility in the appellate system was secured, not duplicated in any other State or in the United Sates judiciary, towards which Virginia leaned.
The Richmond Hustings Court. The Hustings Court, when presided over by a judge (Judge Lyons), had the powers of a circuit court (Ch. 158, Sec. 43), had civil and criminal jurisdiction, and had jurisdiction over the probate of wills and over fiduciaries (Ch. 158, Sec. 44). It had original jurisdiction of all felonies and appellate jurisdiction over cases involving City ordinances (Ch. 158, Sec. 45). It could summon a grand jury in criminal matters and could award injunctions, writs of habeas corpus, mandamus and prohibition (Ch. 158, Sec. 49).
The term “Hustings Court” may generate some confusion because, in the words of a note to Ch. 158, Sec. 43, of the 1860 Virginia Code: “the judge of [the hustings court] has a jurisdiction and powers assimilated to those of circuit courts, there being also another hustings court for Richmond answering to ordinary corporation or hustings courts.” References in the newspapers to the “Mayor’s Court” refer to the court presided over by the mayor or another justice of the peace and functioning essentially as a corporation or county court would function in other localities.
Virginia Corporation and County Courts. Virginia county and corporation courts handled civil and criminal cases except for ”criminal cases against free negroes charged with felonious homicide, or any felony, the punishment whereof may be death, and against white persons, charged with any offence, the punishment whereof may be death or imprisonment in the penitentiary…..” (Ch. 157, Sec. 16).
Virginia Circuit Courts. Virginia circuit courts had jurisdiction in all suits in equity and at law and circuit courts had jurisdiction in prosecutions for felonies (although, in Richmond, the Hustings Court had original jurisdiction of felonies) and misdemeanors except where otherwise provided by law (Ch. 158, Sec.5). Circuit court judges were elected.
The Circuit Court of the City of Richmond had the powers of other circuit courts in Virginia (Ch. 158, Sec. 1), but had special authority to hear chancery cases pending in Henrico county before the enactment of the 1860 Code. The Richmond Circuit Court had jurisdiction of all criminal proceedings against convicts in the penitentiary, proceedings to enforce payment of money to the state government, and all cases in which certain high public officials or public corporations were parties (Ch. 158, Sec. 3)
Virginia District Courts. The Virginia Constitution divided the state into 21 judicial circuits, ten judicial districts and five judicial sections. Richmond was the only court in the seventh circuit. It was in the third district along with the fifth circuit (Accomack, Northampton) and sixth circuit (Elizabeth City, Warwick, York, Gloucester, Matthews, Middlesex, Henrico, New Kent, Charles City, James City County and Williamsburg). Richmond was in the second judicial section which consisted of the third and fourth districts.
District Courts were composed of the circuit judges of a section and a judge of the Supreme Court of Appeals, any three of whom could hold court (Ch. 159, Sec. 1). The District Court had jurisdiction to issue writs of mandamus and prohibition to a circuit court and in habeas corpus cases and appeals.
Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals. The Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals handled appeals of cases from the Richmond Husting Court when presided over by a judge and from the other circuit courts. It also had jurisdiction in habeas corpus cases (Ch. 160, Sec. 5).
Confederate States District Courts. The Confederate District courts replaced the United States District courts in the Confederate States. The Confederate District courts decided cases arising under laws passed by the Confederate Congress including cases such as criminal cases for violations of criminal laws passed by the Confederate Congress and habeas corpus cases dealing with prisoners or detainees held by the Confederate government under Confederate law. The Confederate Congress eliminated diversity of citizenship jurisdiction with the goal of reducing the scope and powers of the Confederate District courts, while promoting the importance of the various state courts. Because of various disputes, the Confederate Supreme Court was never established.