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Courthouse in “Old Town” Alexandria, VA – Pic of the Week

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The following is a guest post by Catharina Schmidt, a foreign law intern working in the Global Legal Research Directorate of the Law Library of Congress.

The courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia is located at 520 King Street in Alexandria’s historic district known as “Old Town”. The building accommodates not one but three courts: The Alexandria General District Court, the Alexandria Juvenile & Domestic Relations District Court, and the Alexandria Circuit Court.

Entrance of the Alexandria Courthouse featuring arched entryways and the seal of the City of Alexandria, Virginia
Alexandria Courthouse. Photo by Catharina Schmidt.

Even though Alexandria’s courthouse is located in “Old Town”, it is not a historic building itself but was dedicated in 1981. As part of the King Street Urban Renewal Project carried out by the City of Alexandria, two thirds of the 500 block (south) of King Street were demolished in 1967 and served as a parking lot. I was fascinated to learn that before the reconstruction of the courthouse took place, the area had been excavated by archaeologists and historical artifacts were found. A bond brick lined shaft with a wall running through its center was discovered in the course of the excavation. It is possible that it once served as a vessel for cooling goods. Inside the shaft of approximately 1.20 m (4 feet) in depth, various artifacts like ceramics, porcelain, and glass fragments were recovered from the excavation. All found artifacts dated to around 1800.

Plaque at the Alexandria Courthouse that reads "Courthouse Square, Gadsby Commercial Urban Renewal Project, Phase III, Alexandria, Virginia, Dedicated May 1, 1981"
Plaque at the Alexandria Courthouse. Photo by Catharina Schmidt.

Jurisdiction of the Courts

The General District Courts (GDCs) in Virginia only hear certain civil and criminal cases: They are trial courts of limited jurisdiction. They decide all criminal cases involving misdemeanors under state law and offenses against laws, ordinances, and by-laws of the city or county where the court is situated. Furthermore, they decide cases in which a person is accused of a traffic infraction and hold preliminary hearings in felony cases. General District Courts also have civil jurisdiction. They handle civil cases in which the amount claimed does not exceed $25,000. Claims for less than $4,500  can only be brought before General District Courts, whereas there is concurrent jurisdiction with the Circuit Courts for claims exceeding $4,500. The Small Claims Court, a separate division within the GDC, decides cases where the amount in dispute is $5,000 or less.

Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Courts (JDRs) in Virginia are also trial courts of limited jurisdiction. They have jurisdiction over various civil and criminal cases in which a juvenile, meaning a person under the age of 18, is involved, such as juveniles charged with a delinquency, as well as domestic relations cases such as spousal and child support, child custody and visitation, and protective orders, but also criminal offenses against family or household members.

Unlike the GDC and the JDR, the Circuit Court is the only trial court of general jurisdiction. Apart from its concurrent jurisdiction with General District Courts for claims exceeding $4,500, it has exclusive original jurisdiction for claims over $25,000. It decides all criminal cases involving felonies and certification or transfer of felonies committed by juveniles. Furthermore, it has jurisdiction over misdemeanor offences that were appealed from district courts or come from a grand jury indictment. Moreover, the Circuit Court hears appeals from the GDC, the JDR, and from state administrative agencies.

View of the Franklin P. Backus Courthouse wing of the Alexandria Courthouse featuring three white arched doorways
Alexandria Courthouse. Photo by Catharina Schmidt.

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